NORFOLK, Va. — Our hope with the MLB Pipeline Game of the Month is to highlight potential key matchups and bring them to wider audiences through MLB.TV. What any prospect writer will tell you is that potential does not always go fulfilled.
And then some days, it absolutely does.
We chose Thursday’s matinee as the May edition of the Game of the Month because of the potential that four Top 50 overall prospects could take the field in the game between Triple-A Norfolk and Memphis at Harbor Park, and we did get lucky that Grayson Rodriguez (No. 6) and Matthew Liberatore (No. 41) were facing off as starting pitchers while Adley Rutschman (No. 2) and Nolan Gorman (No. 31) were also in the lineup.
As fate would have it, all four played key roles in the showcase that ended in a 5-2 road win for Memphis. Here’s how four of the biggest names in prospectdom performed on a misty afternoon by the Elizabeth River:
We’ll start with the Cardinals’ No. 2 prospect because his eighth-inning at-bat may have had the biggest impact on Thursday’s outcome.
The Redbirds trailed 2-1 (more on how later) when Gorman took to the plate against Norfolk right-hander Mike Baumann, who was pitching in relief of Rodriguez and is the Orioles’ No. 13 overall prospect in his own right. It had been a tough day for the Memphis left-handed slugger to that point. Gorman struck out in each of his first three plate appearances (two against Rodriguez, one against Baumann), meaning he opened the series 0-for-10 with seven K’s.
Perhaps growing impatient with seeing so many two-strike counts, Gorman uncorked a massive swing on a first-pitch fastball from Baumann and sent it deep toward the gap in right-center. What looked like a possible flyout kept carrying until the drive sailed over the wall for a go-ahead two-run homer.
It was Gorman’s 13th long ball of the season for Memphis. No one else in Triple-A has hit more than 11, and only fellow Cardinals farmhand Moisés Gómez has hit more in all of affiliated ball between the Minors and Majors.
Gorman has shown prodigious power since his high school days in Arizona, but a 45 percent groundball rate for Memphis kept him from tapping into too much in his first foray into Triple-A. Entering Thursday, that GB rate was down to 29.9 percent in 2022, while his line drive and flyball rates had increased. As a result, Gorman has only one fewer home run with Memphis in 2022 (13) than he did in 2021 (14) in 204 fewer plate appearances. Next up: cutting his 36.3 percent strikeout rate to seal his Major League readiness.
Now, we circle back to why Memphis was trailing going into the eighth in the first place.
Unlike Gorman, the Orioles’ top prospect had made some hard contact earlier in the game with two deep flyouts to left and right in the third and fifth innings, respectively, to show for it. He made sure his own hack in the seventh did damage.
With the left-handed Liberatore out, the switch-hitting Rutschman moved to the left side of the box for the first time Thursday against right-hander Angel Rondon. After throwing two balls to open the at-bat, Rondon left a fastball dead-middle that Rutschman missed by millimeters, fouling it back. The Memphis reliever tried for a better location with his next heater by placing it up and in, but Rutschman’s hands proved too fast. The 2019 first overall pick, who bats out of a slightly open stance, pulled in said hands quickly and yanked the 2-1 pitch to right. The result was his first homer of the season, a 332-foot shot just over the fence.
Important to note: Norfolk’s Harbor Park typically favors pitchers. It was originally designed to the dimensions of Shea Stadium when the Mets were the Tides’ parent club. But in its current status, right field can be a short porch, especially when the wind is blowing left to right as it was Thursday.
Rutschman will take it all the same. He could have joined Bobby Witt Jr., Julio Rodríguez and Spencer Torkelson among the top 4 overall prospects in the Majors on Opening Day, if not for a right triceps injury that delayed his start to the season. Instead, he’s hitting .333/.455/.511 with one homer, eight walks and six strikeouts over 13 games across three levels to open 2022. He says he’s fully healthy. The homer showed that he’s nearly ready too.
Thursday’s pitching matchup not only gave us two quality prospects (each pitching with different arms) but also two different pitching styles.
Liberatore was more of the finesse pitcher of the two on the afternoon, even if his four walks in six innings didn’t quite make it seem that way, and he used that pitchability to limit the Norfolk damage.
The Memphis southpaw sat mostly 92-94 mph with his fastball and used the fastball to record three of his five strikeouts in his six-inning outing, including one backwards-K of Rutschman in the first inning on a 93 mph offering that nicked the inside corner. He spiked a low-70s, 12-to-6 curveball at times to set up the fastball, but when he landed the deuce in the zone, it resulted in whiffs, including twice for K’s. There was some debate as to whether Liberatore’s slider or curve was his best breaking pitch coming into 2021, but it seemed like he leaned on the latter more as Thursday’s start wore on.
The 22-year-old left-hander’s scariest moment came in his last frame. After retiring seven Norfolk batters in a row between the third, fourth and fifth innings, Liberatore issued three walks in the sixth, earning a mound visit from manager Ben Johnson after his 100th pitch. Johnson stuck with the southpaw, who proceeded to get fellow lefty Patrick Dorrian to ground out to second on an inside fastball.
Liberatore’s final line: six innings, four hits, one run allowed, four walks with five strikeouts on 104 pitches. He is now tied for the Triple-A lead with 46 strikeouts over 40 innings, placing him on the level’s leaderboard alongside …
That’s right. Rodriguez fanned eight Memphis batters over five innings to give himself 46 strikeouts on the season as well.
The 6-foot-5 right-hander is much more of a power pitcher than Liberatore, and it showed Thursday. Rodriguez was around 94-96 mph with his fastball in his seventh start of the season, dialing it up to 97 on occasion. Four of his eight punchouts came on the heater. Rodriguez’s mid-80s changeup (deemed another 70-grade pitch by MLB Pipeline) got the bulk of the rest with three, while a curveball fooled a swinging Alec Burleson for the final K. Seven of the eight K’s were swinging.
In all, Rodriguez earned a season-high 16 swings-and-misses on 80 total pitches. That 20 percent rate was an improvement on his 14.3 percent mark that already ranked ninth among Triple-A qualifiers entering Thursday.
The only damage Memphis landed on Rodriguez came when Conner Capel struck a triple off him and scored on an Iván Herrera sac fly one batter later.
The Norfolk starter’s line landed as follows: five innings, three hits, one run allowed, two walks with eight strikeouts on 80 pitches.