When teams add players to their 40-man roster to protect them from the Rule 5 draft, the moves don’t usually get a lot of fanfare.
The moves don't always involve the organization’s top prospects. Being protected means the player has been in the minor leagues for at least four or five years, so they’re not the fast-track minor leaguers. Instead, they’re usually players whose progress has been sidetracked by injuries or some other obstacle.
That’s what makes the three players who the Orioles added Wednesday -- left-hander Tim Berry, catcher Michael Ohlman and right-hander Eddie Gamboa -- interesting. Each of the three has his own tale of perseverance to get to this point, where the Orioles believe the player has shown enough promise that they don’t want to risk seeing him succeed with another organization.
I wrote at length yesterday about Berry, who slipped to the 50th round in 2009 after he suffered a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow and needed Tommy John surgery. Joe Jordan, the Orioles’ scouting director at the time, took a chance on Berry. It meant an investment that included Berry’s surgery and his lengthy recovery.
The Orioles took that risk, and over the past year, they have seen it pay off. Berry has pitched with more confidence. He’s not afraid to use his curveball and changeup when he's behind in the count or as an out pitch. His ability to get both lefties and righties out will give the Orioles plenty of options moving forward because he could be a starter or reliever. And those in the club's player development department believe Berry will move through the system quickly.
Ohlman had a breakout year after a nightmare 2012 season in which he injured his throwing shoulder in a scary automobile accident during spring training and received a 50-game suspension after testing positive for a drug of abuse.
An 11th-round pick out of Bradenton, Fla., in 2009, the Orioles gave Ohlman a hefty signing bonus. He dealt with nagging shoulder issues early this season that relegated him to designated hitter at times, but Ohlman won the Carolina League batting title with a .313 average, led the league in OPS (.934) and was named the Topps Carolina League Player of the Year.
Over the past season, Berry and Ohlman have done a lot to salvage the reputation of Jordan’s 2009 draft class. None of the club’s top 10 picks who remain in the organization advanced beyond high Single-A.
Then there’s Gamboa, who this time last year was wondering about his future in baseball after sitting stagnant in Double-A. During spring training, when Hall of Fame knuckleballer Phil Niekro was working with minor leaguer Zach Staniewicz, Gamboa showed off his knuckleball. Niekro was impressed.
Still, Gamboa’s transition to becoming a knuckleballer wasn’t easy. He embraced it, knowing that it might help to keep open a door to the majors that previously seemed to be closing. The mental obstacle of trusting a pitch that flutters and dances went against everything he learned as a conventional pitcher.
Results had to follow, and over the second half of this past season, Gamboa saw that at Triple-A Norfolk, and that momentum has continued in the Mexican Pacific League, where he is 3-1 with a 1.38 ERA in six starts pitching for Navajoa.
I’ve received a few questions about why the Orioles signed right-handed reliever Edgmer Escalona to a major-league deal, and because of it, does it mean there will be a bullpen shakeup this year?
The Orioles were really impressed with how Escalona has pitched in the winter league in Venezuela. The organization’s scouts raved about how he developed a split-fingered changeup that allowed him to get left-handed hitters out.
They saw how Escalona struggled to retire lefties first-hand in Baltimore during his final outing of the season for the Colorado Rockies on Aug. 18, when Chris Davis turned on a 95-mph fastball and sent it into the center-field seats for his 45th homer of the season.
But after seeing Escalona hold left-handers to a .173 average in Venezuela, the Orioles were convinced that his new changeup would help complement his fastball and slider.
And from what I’ve heard, he was also getting interest from other clubs -- including those in the O's division -- offering sizable money for him to pitch in Triple-A. The only way the Orioles could compete for him was to offer him a major-league deal.
Escalona has made 78 major league appearances in his career, and the strides he made in Venezuela this offseason intrigued the Orioles. He just turned 27 last month, and the Orioles staff believes developing that third pitch might be enough for Escalona to turn the corner. They didn’t want that to happen with him pitching for a rival club.
Just because he’s signed to a major league-deal, it by no means guarantees him a spot in the bullpen. He will still have to earn it. But it's interesting that he has pitched exclusively as a starter in Venezuela. That offers a little flexibility going into camp.
Another outfielder signs
An interesting free agent came off the board this week when the Cleveland Indians signed outfielder David Murphy to a two-year, $12-million deal.
The Orioles definitely had some interest in Murphy, who was coming off a down year, hitting .220/.282/.374 with 13 home runs and 45 RBIs in 2013. But his career .280 average against right-handed pitching offered a reasonable alternative to Nate McLouth as a solid left-handed hitter who could -- at the very least -- platoon in left field.
Murphy and Marlon Byrd, who signed a two-year, $16-million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies, are off the board. Combine that with the two-year, $10.5-million extension David DeJesus received from the Tampa Bay Rays after his 2014 option was picked up, and there are some outfielders getting good money.
What does that say for the Orioles? Well, it’s starting to look more likely that if they’re serious about re-signing McLouth, they will have to make him a two-year offer.