As the Gregorian Calendar flips to the ninth month of 2023, the baseball calendar flips to the sixth and final month of the regular season. With that, each Major League team is allowed to add two players, one pitcher and one position player, from their 40-man roster to the big league club to add depth for September. For many teams, this is an opportunity to add young players to the club to give them big league at bats or appearances without losing a roster spot.
For teams not in contention, this also gives young players the opportunity to play in a low pressure environment. For the Orioles, players like Hunter Harvey, Austin Hays, and DJ Stewart made their big league debut in similar circumstances in non-competitive years.
The September call-up period is also an opportunity for teams to add depth to their bullpen which is desperately needed as the dog days of summer take a toll on pitchers. The Orioles have been especially hard hit as their closer Felix Bautista went down with a UCL injury less than a week ago and the hole is giant for a team that needs every win they can get.
For the first time since 2016, the Orioles enter September in a playoff spot, as they currently lead the American League East by 1.5 games over the Tampa Bay Rays. The Orioles also have a real chance to represent the American League in the World Series. Every game from here on out will matter as the one game could be the difference between the number one and number four seed in the Postseason which makes a huge difference.
Unfortunately, the Rays are unrelenting despite the losses of their two biggest stars, Wander Franco and Shane McClanahan, over the past month. As mentioned earlier, the Orioles lost their biggest star last week to a UCL injury and it seems unlikely that Bautista will be available again in 2023. Without Felix, an already taxed bullpen will be relied on heavily with tiring arms.
Fortunately, they have already received help in the arrival of Jacob Webb from the Angels and the return of Danny Coulombe, DL Hall, and Austin Voth from injury. The impending return of John Means from injury will only help the pitching staff more.
That being said, the Orioles chose to promote a young hitter who has been blocked in Colton Cowser and extra bullpen help in Joey Krehbiel with their two additional roster spots. Both Cowser and Krehbiel have played for the Orioles this season and Krehbiel was a major part of last year's bullpen which was one of the most dominant and surprising in baseball. The promotion of Cowser also adds depth and versatility to the outfield, which has been solid, but could use a solid hitter that can play all three positions.
Orioles call up Colton Cowser and Joey Krehbiel with roster expansion
It is well known that Cowser struggled mightily in his first trip with the big club after injuries to Aaron Hicks and Cedric Mullins. Cowser was a highly touted prospect after dominating in every level of the minors and was the fifth overall pick in the 2021 draft out of Sam Houston State in Texas. Cowser made his MLB debut on July 5th against the Yankees and went 1-for-3 with a walk and RBI single in a 6-3 win that night.
However, Cowser was flat out bad offensively in his one month and change in the big leagues before Hicks and Mullins' returns forced him back to Triple-A. In 26 games, Colton slashed .115/.286/.148 with a 27 OPS+ in 26 games.
As I wrote during the midst of his struggles, many young hitters struggle to begin their big league career and they need to make slight adjustments, but sheer talent usually wins out. For example, Gunnar Henderson and Adley Rutschman both struggled in the first few months of their MLB careers and are now two of the best hitters in the lineup.
However, Cowser's first month constituted more than just slight struggles at the plate. In his first month, Cowser looked like he did not belong on an MLB diamond and the Orioles do not have the benefit of letting young players work out struggles like they did in the past when they would routinely finish with 100+ losses.
It has been less than a month since Cowser was sent back down to Triple-A and in that time Colton has shown glimpses of why he is a big part of the Orioles' future with strong offensive performances and great defensive plays. Confidence will be a key factor this final month as he clearly lost some of his swagger with his poor offensive play in July and August and September is a critical juncture for the rest of his career.
The biggest question will be how much Cowser plays for the Orioles in September. The Orioles have a mostly healthy outfield with Hays, Mullins, and Anthony Santander starting almost every game. The Orioles have their usual fourth outfielder in Ryan McKenna on the roster and they also use Adam Frazier and Ryan O'Hearn in the outfield.
Cowser is a much better defensive outfielder than Frazier, O'Hearn, and Santander, which plays to his advantage, and he has the ability to play a strong center field which only McKenna and Mullins can confidently also say.
However, Santander is currently on one of the biggest tears of his career and he will be an everyday presence in the lineup as long as he stays healthy the rest of the way. Hays and Mullins have shown fatigue and some struggles during the stretch run since the All-Star break, which means that both players will likely need more off days in September.
This is the biggest opportunity for Cowser, he is a better offensive weapon against righties than McKenna and games where either Hays or Mullins will not be in the starting lineup are the chances where Cowser can turn things around and prove himself as a good Major League hitter.
As for the other move, this is an opportunity for Krehbiel to prove himself as a quality relief pitcher since he has not had many opportunities in 2023. Joey has pitched only two games this season with Baltimore, for a total of 1.2 innings. He has only faced five batters in the majors this season, but none of them have gotten on base and two struck out.
Last season, Krehbiel was one of the most often used relievers in Baltimore with 56 appearances and a 3.90 ERA in 57.2 innings pitched. He was a league average pitcher with a 101 ERA+ and has clearly proven that he can be a competent pitcher in the majors. The expanded rosters, loss of Bautista, and struggles of Bryan Baker and Mike Baumann give Krehbiel this opportunity to pitch in key September games for the best team in the American League.
In Triple-A this season, Krehbiel has pitched well with a 2.75 ERA in 31 appearances and 36 innings pitched. Walks have been an issue, as he has allowed 5.3 walks per nine innings pitched with 7.8 strikeouts in that same span. A 1.48 strikeout-to-walk ratio is certainly troubling for a pitcher who needs good command to be effective.
Krehbiel's proven ability to pitch in clutch situations certainly helped his case as the Orioles were looking for pitchers to promote. The Orioles need to find a way to cover 9+ innings every game for the next month as they look ahead to the Postseason and fight with the Rays for the division title.
Notably, there were several Orioles such as Heston Kjerstad, Joey Ortiz, and Tyler Wells who were not promoted, despite each player having strong cases to join the team. Ortiz and Wells have played for the O's earlier this season, but Kjerstad will continue to wait for his Major League debut despite dominating the minors all season as a former number two overall pick. Ortiz and Wells are also on the 40-man roster, where Kjerstad is not.
Regardless, the Orioles are in a strong position to compete for a division title, pennant and World Championship as they enter September with a 83-50 record and could easily pass 100 wins with a strong month.