Analysis: The Orioles' Rule 5 pitching audition has a surprising front-runner

As Orioles players entered the home clubhouse at the Ed Smith Stadium complex on Monday morning, a sign informing them there are just 14 days left in big league camp hung on a wall in plain view.

There are still two weeks of exhibition games left until the Orioles must select their Opening Day 25-man roster, but the innings are dwindling, which leaves limited opportunities to evaluate the team’s three pitchers selected in December’s Rule 5 draft.

Manager Buck Showalter said Monday that he expects the audition to continue until the final days of camp. But with only three bullpen spots available, the club will be hard-pressed to carry more than one of the Rule 5 picks.

“If someone walked in and said, ‘Look, can we make a decision right now?’ then I’d be able to do that, but we’ll probably take it to the end,” Showalter said.

They each present a different resume, and two of them — left-hander Nestor Cortes Jr. and right-hander Jose Mesa — were selected as unprotected products of a New York Yankees farm system rich in pitching. But at this point, it is former Chicago Cubs farmhand Pedro Araujo – who is the front-runner among the three picks.

Cortes is still considered a candidate for the fifth and final rotation spot, but how much the club continues to stretch him out within the final weeks will be telling as innings begin to go to other starting pitchers as they extend their innings for the beginning of the season.

The Orioles continue to like his length, and his array of speeds and arm angles, which would make him a potential multiple-inning reliever to keep opponents off balance. Despite not possessing spectacular stuff, he has a track record of success that has followed him through all levels of the minors — a career 2.06 ERA that includes a 1.49 mark in nearly 50 innings at the Triple-A level last year.

Mesa, whose delivery and likeness resembles that of his father, the former major league pitcher of the same name, dazzled in 2017. The 24-year-old had a breakout season, pitching well in a multiple-inning role in High-A before moving up to Double-A and excelling in five starts there — allowing just one earned run over 25 1/3 innings.

Mesa struggled in his first outing this spring, allowing three runs over two-thirds of an inning in a debut against the Boston Red Sox that Showalter said he would give him a pass on, but since then, he’s shown unremarkable velocity, struggling to hit 90 mph, and hasn’t done much to separate himself.

Cortes was strong in his first two outings — a pair of one-run, two-inning stints in which he showed how his mix of pitches can play — but he allowed three runs on six hits in three innings in his most recent outing Thursday against the Toronto Blue Jays.

And quietly, Araujo — the 24-year-old who has drawn comparisons to former Orioles reliever and current Cubs right-hander Pedro Strop in presentation and demeanor — has had the most impressive spring training.

Araujo rebounded well from his only spring hiccup with a perfect fifth inning in the Orioles’ 4-0 split-squad win over the Philadelphia Phillies on Sunday night. Coming off an outing in which he allowed two runs on two hits and a walk Friday against the Blue Jays, he pitched a perfect sixth inning, striking out two — both swinging — while mixing a mid-90s fastball and a changeup that caught hitters off balance.

Showalter brought Araujo into Sunday night’s game in the sixth inning so he could face Phillies starters before they went to the bench, and he said seeing Araujo pitch at night under conditions more similar to a regular-season game helped in evaluating him better. And his two strikeouts came against major league hitters in Rhys Hoskins and Carlos Santana.

“They’re [all] important,” Showalter said about each pitcher’s outings. “Every day, you say, ‘OK, this is how I feel right now, but let’s see what tomorrow brings.’ It was really good after Araujo’s first kind of [rocky] outing to see him [rebound]. When you see a good hitter like Santana who does not swing at balls swing at a changeup that starts in the zone and leaves in the zone, those are things you’re looking at. He’s pretty good. I like him. He looks the part. He’s a good kid.”

Take away that outing and Araujo has allowed just one hit over four scoreless innings, impressive numbers when you consider that he has made just one appearance over the Single-A level in his professional career.

Araujo was under the radar going into the offseason, but when he struck out 15 and allowed just five hits over 10 1/3 innings in the Arizona Fall League, he was hard to ignore, which is why the Orioles selected him.

The Orioles have seen success and failure in attempting to carry Rule 5 pitchers. In 2013, they were able to keep left-hander T.J. McFarland, who served a valuable role as a long reliever to turn over a batting order following right-handed starters.

Two years later, the Orioles carried hard-throwing right-hander Jason Garcia, who struggled in the back of the Orioles bullpen before landing on the disabled list. They can’t have that outcome again, especially if they’re committed to a seven-man bullpen.

But neither pitcher remains in the organization.

Picks must spend 90 days on the active major league roster to fulfill Rule 5 requirements, though that time can extend into the following year. That is the case with outfielder Anthony Santander, who must remain on the roster for the season’s first 44 days.

There’s time for all three existing Rule 5 picks to make their case, but the clock is ticking because the audition can’t carry over into April.

“I wish I had more time, but yeah, there have been some good looks in situations where you can closely simulate some stuff,” Showalter said. “That’s another reason why you take them to the end because you’re going to get more and more of that.”

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