Bradish gives Orioles more than enough reason for optimism about Rodriguez’s return

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After announcing top pitching prospect Grayson Rodriguez would be returning to the majors, the Orioles could look no further than Sunday’s starter as reason for optimism that extends beyond Rodriguez’s talents.  

A year before giving Baltimore its longest outing of the year in Sunday’s 5-4 win over Miami and entering Monday just shy of qualifying for the AL’s eighth-best ERA at 3.05, right-hander Kyle Bradish found himself in a similar spot to Rodriguez, still trying to prove he belonged in the majors after some significant struggles early on. 

Through 10 starts as a rookie, Bradish flashed promise in a terrific seven-inning outing in St. Louis in May, but a 7.38 ERA — Rodriguez’s ERA is 7.35 in 10 starts — told the story as he was placed on the injured list with right shoulder inflammation in late June. Taking advantage of that IL stint to make adjustments that included relying more on his slider and curveball and less on a four-seam fastball that was being hammered at the highest level, the 26-year-old returned to the majors in late July, posting a 3.28 ERA over his final 13 starts to help keep the surprising Orioles’ playoff hopes alive until the season’s final week. The highlight was a masterful 8 2/3 shutout innings in a Sept. 22 road win over eventual World Series champion Houston.

Bradish was outstanding on Sunday, striking out eight Marlins batters and allowing just three hits over 7 1/3 shutout innings. It was the first time all season a Baltimore starter had completed more than seven innings, and the timing was ideal with All-Star relievers Felix Bautista and Yennier Cano unavailable after both pitched on Friday and Saturday. The right-hander has now allowed two or fewer runs in each of his last six starts and no runs over his last 15 1/3 innings. 

Dating back to his return from the IL last July 29, Bradish has pitched to a 3.15 ERA over 30 starts covering 162 2/3 innings while averaging 8.41 strikeouts and 2.88 walks per nine innings. As a result, he’s jockeying with Tyler Wells to be the Orioles’ ace, a job many believe Rodriguez remains destined to hold despite the rough start to his rookie year. If Bradish — who was never as highly regarded as a prospect — can regroup so quickly to find success, there’s no reason to believe Rodriguez can’t do the same. 

It’s rarely easy at the next level for even the most talented prospects, something Rodriguez learned all too well in April and May.

But adding such a talented arm to the mix for the second half could prove as valuable as any deal Orioles general manager Mike Elias might realistically have the opportunity to make before the Aug. 1 trade deadline.  

Roster juggling

Much has been made about looming roster decisions with the Orioles unlikely to be able to keep 14 position players and just 12 pitchers for long coming out of the All-Star break, but the weekend reminded how quickly things can change. 

Though regarded as only a “day-to-day” absence, center fielder Cedric Mullins exiting Saturday’s game with right quad tightness was the last thing the Orioles wanted to see, especially since he was 4-for-5 to open the second half after struggling in his return from the groin injury that sidelined him for most of June. On Sunday, veteran outfielder Aaron Hicks was scratched with lower back soreness, leaving rookie Colton Cowser to make his first Camden Yards start in center field. 

Such health concerns are one reason why it’s sometimes easier said than done to tweak the active roster in the name of having the best possible 26 players, especially when that requires designating someone for assignment and potentially losing a talent from the organization entirely. For example, one could easily argue that struggling shortstop Jorge Mateo isn’t currently one of Baltimore’s best 26, but he is out of minor-league options and has a skill set that’s still valuable and likely to be claimed elsewhere, which is why he remains — at least for now.

That’s not to suggest such a decision to move on from an incumbent won’t be made at some point, but it’s easier to option someone else to the minors temporarily than to lament a player being with another team if an unexpected need arises. That’s something to keep in mind whenever the Orioles determine they need to go back to carrying 13 pitchers. Of course, such decisions are sometimes made for you in the event of an injury. 

Henderson against lefties

Batting .288 with an .890 on-base plus slugging percentage since May 13, Gunnar Henderson has been one of the Orioles’ very best players for more than two months now, but left-handed pitching has remained a challenge for the 22-year-old. 

He collected his first extra-base hit of 2023 against a southpaw on Sunday, doubling off Marlins opener Steven Okert to lead off the first. With that two-bagger, Henderson improved to 12-for-58 (.207) with a .585 OPS against lefties this season. He went 3-for-23 with two doubles against left-handed pitchers after being promoted last year. 

Those numbers are better than where he was earlier this season, but improving against lefties is the last hurdle for Henderson becoming an undisputed everyday player and potential star.

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