BALTIMORE — It wasn’t long ago that a prospect’s arrival was all Orioles fans had to look forward to over the course of a miserable 162-game season with far more losing than winning.
The chance to dream about the future was a heck of a lot more fun than glancing at the reality of the AL East standings — and most of the play on the field — on any given night. In the process of suffering through three seasons of 108 or more losses, fans desperately needed the hope a talented rookie brings.
General manager Mike Elias never rushed minor-league players to the majors, but there wasn’t a problem finding a spot for young talent on those undermanned rosters full of placeholders. Of course, that began to change 13 months ago with Adley Rutschman’s arrival in Baltimore as the Orioles transitioned from rebuilding to contending for a wild-card spot last summer.
Expectations have only grown in 2023 with the Orioles entering Monday with the third best record in baseball. And while there was still plenty of excitement for infielder Jordan Westburg’s major league debut after he collected a whopping 35 extra-base hits at Triple-A Norfolk this season, the primary focus remained on the Orioles trying to beat upstart Cincinnati to improve to a season-high 19 games above .500.
After more than 700 plate appearances, 81 extra-base hits, and an .899 on-base plus slugging percentage for the Tides dating back to last June, Westburg needed to be both productive and patient for this chance to play for a contender.
“It just makes me want to embrace whatever my role is going to be to help this team continue to win,” said Westburg, who batted seventh and played second base in a game delayed by rain multiple times. “Right now, I’m not super focused on anything personal. I’m focused on just meshing with everybody in this clubhouse and helping this team continue to play great baseball.”
With that opportunity comes pressure to perform, especially since Westburg’s promotion comes on the heels of the struggles of middle infielders Jorge Mateo and Adam Frazier. The Orioles are at a point where decisions to promote prospects are no longer driven by that player’s readiness or development as much as whether he’s regarded as an upgrade over the incumbent at the major league level.
You wouldn’t promote Westburg to the 40-man roster at this stage without plans to play him regularly, but the Orioles certainly want to see the power and consistency he showed throughout his ascent to the majors. As we saw with Grayson Rodriguez last month, the organization won’t hesitate to send even a star prospect back to the minors if he doesn’t get the job done.
Not when the primary objective is winning.
“I just want these guys to fit in, honestly, and not try to do too much,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “Just be a part of what we have going on here and not try to do more than they’re capable of. Play solid defense, take the best at-bats you possibly can, and don’t change from what you’ve been doing to get you here.
“It’s really easy when you get called up to feel like you’ve got to do more.”
Familiarity should help Westburg acclimate since he knows much of the roster after spending nearly all of spring training in major league camp this past spring. The 24-year-old also played with Gunnar Henderson at four different levels in the minors with the two being promoted to Norfolk on the same day last June.
But a major league arrival doesn’t mean player development is over, which is a challenge the contending Orioles have faced with the youngest players on the roster. Westburg certainly adds more potential to the infield than a veteran like Frazier, but International League success doesn’t guarantee a smooth transition to the majors.
“Even though these guys get here and our big league players, there’s not a ton of big league experience,” Hyde said. “There’s constant teaching and coaching that’s still is happening up here. I feel good about kind of where we are and how much better we’ve gotten because of that the last couple years.”
Even if Westburg struggles initially, his versatility should help keep his name in the lineup after he played five different positions for the Tides this season, including a combined six starts at the corner outfield spots. While acknowledging the Mississippi State product’s ability to play shortstop — the position he played the most in the minors — if necessary, Hyde expects Westburg to play primarily at second and third base for the Orioles.
As long as his name is in the lineup somewhere, Westburg is ready to make the most of the opportunity. He certainly waited long enough to join a contender.
“I’ve kind of embraced that challenge. I’ve told many of you that I see that as a fun challenge for me,” Westburg said. “I’m looking forward to maybe moving around the same as I was in the minors. But wherever I play, I’m going to make sure to get my work in and try to be as solid as I can at that position.”
The Orioles will take “solid” as the days of feeling like they needed a savior are gladly behind them.