In their continual pursuit of unearthing undervalued commodities, the Orioles reached into the pool again Thursday during the annual Rule 5 draft, grabbing a potential candidate for the 2013 rotation.
With the 23rd pick of the Rule 5 draft — the final official matter of baseball’s weeklong winter meetings at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel — the Orioles selected 23-year-old left-hander T.J. McFarland from the Cleveland Indians organization.
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McFarland, a 6-foot-3, 209-pound sinkerballer, was the Indians’ fourth-round pick in the 2007 amateur draft and went 16-8 with a 4.03 ERA in 27 combined starts at Double-A and Triple A in 2012. He was 8-6 with a 4.82 ERA in 17 starts for Triple-A Columbus in his first taste at the highest level in the minor leagues.
“He’s got a good sinker, he keeps the ball down, He’s got a good changeup and he throws strikes in the bottom of the strike zone and we like him as a qualified major leaguer,” Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette said. “If you look at his record, over the course of his career, he’s won  games and lost , which is very rare for a young pitcher, very rare to find a young pitcher with that type of winning record. So we know he has a knack for winning games and hopefully that knack will transfer to the major leagues.”
The club needs to keep McFarland on the 25-man major-league roster all season or offer him back to the Indians for half of the $50,000 acquisition price. He’s been a starter for most of his professional baseball career, and he’ll likely get a chance to compete for a spot in the Orioles’ rotation this spring.
“Usually, pitchers this age, they don’t have that experience in the upper levels of the farm system,” Duquette said. “We’ll decide [if he could pitch out of the bullpen] in spring training, but it looks to me like he is a qualified major-league starter in the future.”
John Manuel, editor of Baseball America, which specializes in covering the minor leagues, called McFarland “one of the more reasonable picks in terms of chances to stick on a major league roster” of the 15 big-league Rule 5 selections made Thursday.
“He’s probably not a guy who profiles as someone you ever want to start a playoff game for you,” Manuel said. “But can he be a guy who makes 25 or 30 starts, can pitch 175 innings and be a fifth starter on a team that has really good infield defense like Baltimore? I think that is possible. I think that is a reasonable expectation.”
The Orioles have a crowded rotation picture, with nearly a dozen candidates potentially jockeying for the five spots. But Duquette likes options — and the philosophy worked for him last year. So, to an extent, did choosing a Rule 5 player in the past.
In 2011, the Orioles selected infielder Ryan Flaherty from the Chicago Cubs and he stayed on the roster all season, batting .216 in 153 at-bats over 77 games. Flaherty worked himself into a platoon at second base by the end of the season and homered in the playoffs.
“In the Rule 5 draft, it was considered a success when [the Orioles] got 150 at-bats and a couple playoff starts out of a guy [who] hit .216 and played second base for them,” Manuel said. “I think McFarland is in that same realm as Ryan Flaherty. He’s a guy whose ceiling is not too high, especially in that first year, but it is reasonable to expect him to make your team and contribute as a fifth starter.”
The Orioles also took a Rule 5 player in the Triple-A phase of the draft: 26-year-old right-handed pitcher Tom Boleska from the Minnesota Twins organization. Boleska never actually pitched for the Twins, however. A former Pittsburgh Pirates farmhand, Boleska signed with Minnesota in October after saving 29 games for Fargo-Moorhead of the independent American Association.
“We have placed an emphasis on independent baseball and acquiring players from independent baseball,” Duquette said. “And this is another deal from the independent leagues.”
The Orioles have signed several players from non-affiliated baseball teams — including outfielder Lew Ford, who made the majors last year — in the past year. They scouted the hard-throwing Boleska last season with Fargo-Moorhead and in Germany as part of the World Baseball Classic qualifiers.
“[He has a] fastball, 90 to 95 [mph] … curveball, slider. Good repertoire,” said Mike Snyder, the Orioles’ assistant director of scouting and player development. “We like his stuff.”
Boleska, for now, will be placed on the Triple-A Norfolk roster but can play throughout the Orioles’ system in 2013.
The Orioles did not have any players taken in the major-league portion of the Rule 5 draft, but they did lose outfielder Robbie Widlansky to the Los Angeles Angels in the Triple-A phase. The Orioles’ 2007 11th-round pick, Widlansky, 28, had an outstanding season at Double-A Bowie last year, hitting .316 with a .404 on-base percentage, eight homers and 83 RBIs. But he didn’t appear to be in the Orioles’ future plans.
“He had a good year. He’ll do well for them,” Snyder said. “Sometimes it’s just roster space, but I’m sorry to see him go.”