For the third year, the Shorebird Position Player and Pitcher of the Month returns to my website. Overall, this will the the fourteenth season during which I honor particular Shorebird players, having done so on a weekly basis for the first eleven. 41 of those so honored have made it to the major leagues, either with the parent Orioles or one of the other 29 teams. Only a handful of teams (nine, to be exact) remain territory a Hall of Famer hasn’t played at the big league level.
There won’t be photos to start because I haven’t seen the pitcher being honored quite yet. But, as usual, I’ll begin with the position player who shined the brightest among a constellation of stars you would normally find on a team which got off to a franchise-best 18-4 start.
A product of the University of Iowa and Hawkeye born-and-bred, outfielder Robert Neustrom parlayed three straight seasons of hitting over .300 and improving in the vital OPS (on-base percentage + slugging percentage, a good barometer of a batter’s ability) each year into a fifth-round selection by the Orioles last season (not to mention a $300k signing bonus to forgo his senior campaign.)
Assigned to Aberdeen last season, Robert slashed a solid .272/4/29/.716 OPS for the Ironbirds last season in 61 games. Neustrom wasn’t the top performer in any particular major category (although he led the team in doubles) but was generally in the top three to five of most line items. It was obvious he would be coming to Delmarva this season as the next step in his development.
And what a step it was. In just 19 games, Robert had a slash line of .329/3/14/.957 OPS, numbers that were either first or second for the Shorebirds in April. In just one month – and barely a third of the plate appearances he had for Aberdeen – Neustrom racked up nearly half the RBIs and fell one short of matching his total in home runs.
The only downer to Robert’s month was that of being placed on the 7-day injured list on the first of May due to an injury reported during Tuesday’s game, where he exited “grasping at his calf.” That may slow down the 22-year-old, who was regarded as the 29th-best prospect in the Orioles system to begin this year – although he’s the 18th-best among players the team actually signed or drafted – but hopefully will not become a lingering problem.
It was a close battle between Neustrom and infielder Adam Hall for the top position player spot in April, but I had an even more difficult choice among the pitching ranks as three topped the field.
Tipping the scale toward Grayson Rodriguez: a microscopic 0.54 ERA and a SAL Pitcher of the Week designation for the first week of the season, which was actually a week and a half and allowed him to make two starts – a pair of games against defending league champ Lexington and 2018 SAL North pacesetter Lakewood. In 11 innings between the two starts, Grayson allowed three harmless singles and struck out 20 batters. The only area of concern may have been the five walks.
Grayson ran his scoreless streak to 15-plus innings before allowing his first and only run of the month on a home run by Greensboro’s Rodolfo Castro. The slash line against Rodriguez in April: .123/1/1/.399 OPS.
While success has come early to Rodriguez, it wasn’t entirely unexpected: the 11th overall selection in the 2018 draft, the 19-year-old out of Central Heights High School in Nacogdoches, Texas had 4.3 million reasons to take a pass on college ball. Instead, Grayson went to the Gulf Coast League and got his initial education as a bright light on a miserable team that won just 13 games out of 55 played – a real school of hard knocks. However, with just 19 1/3 decent but unspectacular innings spaced out among nine appearances in 2018, this is really the first time the training wheels are off. (To an extent, that is: the Orioles brass had Rodriguez skip his last scheduled turn to keep his innings total down.)
So he did not pitch during the last long homestand – his only home appearance was the first Friday night game of the season. Thanks to inclement weather and schedule vagaries, Grayson’s turn won’t come up again until tomorrow night at Augusta – a layoff that went over two weeks.
Already regarded as the #5 prospect in the Baltimore system, Grayson had strong competition for the April honors: a case could have easily been made to instead select Blaine Knight, Delmarva’s opening day starter and owner of seriously good numbers himself. Also in the running was Ofelky Peralta, who began the season on a strikeout tear by recording 12 of his first 14 outs via the punchout and still leads the team with 31.