Spenser Watkins will get his second major league start on Sunday, the final game before the All-Star break. Watkins, a 28-year-old right-hander, nearly quit baseball during the pandemic and was one of many players signed to a minor league contract before spring training.
He began his season at Triple-A Norfolk and watched teammates Jay Flaa, Mickey Jannis and Konner Wade get brief trials while he waited.
“My initial thought for all those guys was that’s amazing,” Watkins said. “That’s a great opportunity. I’ve been lucky enough to see guys get their opportunities, and that’s one of my favorite memories of my career is to see certain guys get their opportunities … I never had the thought of, ‘Where’s my opportunity?’ I had the thought of, ‘I hope mine is coming soon. I hope I’m doing enough to get that opportunity.’
“I talked it over with my wife, and I said it makes me even more hungry to get there. In a sense, it lit a fire for me to continue to get better and to continue to work and show that I belonged here.”
Watkins credits his wife, Brittany, for helping him with his journey through the minor leagues, which began in 2014 when the Detroit Tigers chose him in the 30th round from Western Oregon University.
His wife, a technical support engineer, has basically supported him—until now.
“I’m extremely lucky in the sense that I have had my wife kind of pick up the slack in a sense for me to fulfill my dream and continue to work towards my dream,” Watkins said. “I think we’ve always had those conversations of, ‘I’ll get you later.’ Hopefully, this will be worth it in the long run.
“I can’t tell you how lucky I am to have her, and what she’s sacrificed for me to be able to do this. This is a reward for both of us. I’ve been pretty much been using her as my flotation device as we get through.”
Watkins wasn’t a top prospect. The 30th-round draft choice did get a bonus, “$1,000 before taxes and a plane ticket,” he said. “I couldn’t have been happier at the time. I said, ‘Awesome, they want to give me some money to go play professional baseball, no doubt. ‘ At the time, I would have taken a jersey and an opportunity. It was great, and then I saw the check come in after taxes, and said, ‘This doesn’t look the same anymore.’”
Watkins said his parents helped him develop his work ethic. “It was always instilled from my parents that if you want something, you have to work towards it … Never do anything half-assed. If you’re going to do something, you’re going to give every bit of yourself until someone says no or it’s just not the right choice.”
In his first start last Tuesday, Watkins allowed a run on three hits in the Orioles’ 7-5 win over Toronto. With injuries to John Means and Bruce Zimmermann and ineffectiveness by the remaining starters, there’s a chance for Watkins to stay in the rotation.
“If you’re pitching well, it’s going to be pretty easy to stay here right now,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “If you come in and show you can pitch well here, you’re going to have the opportunity to go back out, just like Watkins did his last start. We’re looking for pitching, there’s no doubt about it, looking for guys to be able to navigate through American League East lineups, which is not easy to do.”
Now that Watkins is here, he’s enjoying it.
“It’s everything I ever dreamed of, plus some,” Watkins said. “It truly is the same game that I’ve been playing for so long, but it’s that I’ve gotten that validation of, ‘You can compete at the highest level. You’ve been training your whole life to get to the highest level, and you need to do this.’
“It’s everything you’re missing in the minor leagues,” Watkins said. “They give you that level of comfort. It’s not necessarily a grind. We’re still grinding through 162 games in a year every year but you have the comfort aspect. You have the charter planes. You have the nicer buses if you’re just traveling to and from the airport. Maybe it’s a little bit more food here, more things readily available.”
Watkins worked through the Tigers’ farm system, stopping at Low-A West Michigan and High-A Lakeland in three consecutive seasons. He’s gotten to see the difference between the big leagues and the minors.
“I think strength of teams as a whole,” he said. “In the minor leagues, you’ll find they have three really good hitters that can hurt you, and that’s it, but up here, it’s 1 through 9 can hurt you. You’re facing quality all the way through, no matter who gets put into this level. Everyone who’s up here is up here deservedly. The quality and the consistency of the game is what the difference is.”
Even though he didn’t come from a baseball powerhouse, he was surprised when he reported to the Tigers’ Rookie League team in the Gulf Coast League.
“At first, when I was younger, it was, ‘Where’s the flash? Where’s the flare?’ This is supposed to be pro ball. These fields are like you’re playing on a high school field.
“As I got older, I just learned to appreciate the opportunity. Getting older, going to those fields, I more so took the approach of, ‘I’m already here, I might as well do very best with the place that I’m at, and what’s going on at the time.’
“As I got older, I matured more and I was able to approach it, ‘Let’s get my work in, no matter what the situation is, whether I’m in Beloit, Wisconsin or whether I’m at Camden Yards in Baltimore.’ That’s helped turn my mentality into — no matter where I’m at, no matter where I am that day, my work is my work.”
After Sunday’s game, Watkins will get an unexpected All-Star break, and he’s going to put it to practical use. He’ll drive to Norfolk and get the rest of his clothes. When he was called up, he was on a five-day road trip with the Tides and had clothes for only five days.
He’ll get to do some laundry, bring some clothes back to Baltimore for the Orioles’ next road trip to Kansas City and Tampa Bay.
“That way, maybe I can wear more than three fitted shirts over a two-week span,” Watkins said.