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Hunting for upgrades, Orioles show willingness to turn over 40-man roster

Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette has been busy during the first two weeks of the season. While he regularly refers to his philosophy of improving the club year-round as a foundation of the team's recent success, Duquette has organized a unique reworking of the organization's roster with an emphasis on improving the pitching depth.

Over the past 13 days, the Orioles have added five pitchers to their 40-man roster, including four who came from outside the organization via trades. None are household names, but Duquette is confident they are upgrades over what the club had before.

"There were a couple things we were trying to accomplish there," Duquette said. "We were trying to add better pitchers and more pitchers that would be complementary to our major league staff for this year, and hopefully if we did our job right, for next year and beyond that."

The moves are unprecedented not only in volume and timing — 40-man spots are precious early in the season — but also in the way the Orioles have acquired their new pieces, using an often unused asset like international bonus slot money as a form of currency to trade for players.

The Orioles' 40-man roster includes 25 pitchers, including nine who have been added since Feb. 10.

Duquette has never been afraid to shuffle his roster, but the timing of the flurry of moves is interesting, and is a way for the Orioles to plan for key free agency periods over the next two years. But it also reveals the organization's thinking in terms of turning the page on pitchers who haven't met expectations.

"You know, there's the whole thing about sifting through [for gold]," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "You shake [the tray], you shake it. You get a nugget here and a nugget there, rocks there. Now let's go get some more and sift through them. It's through trades, it's through waivers, it's through the draft."

In making their recent acquisitions, the Orioles took four pitchers off the 40-man, all right-handers — Oliver Drake, Parker Bridwell, Joe Gunkel and Jason Garcia — and all with the exception of Garcia were traded to other teams. Garcia cleared outright waivers and returned to Double-A Bowie.

They have been replaced on the 40-man roster by two right-handers, Miguel Castro and Damien Magnifico, and two lefties, Andrew Faulkner and Paul Fry. The Orioles also added right-hander Stefan Crichton to the 40-man, but he was an internal addition.

On paper, the overhaul makes sense. But the truth will rely on how well the newly acquired players will be developed. However, the Orioles believed the new additions had more promise than the pitchers they took off the roster. Another important factor is that they all still have minor league options, so they add to the team's improved roster flexibility and remove some of the clutter created by trying to keep players without options in the organization.

Castro and Magnifico come to the Orioles with big arms, both possessing fastballs that can hit the upper 90s.

Castro, 22, went from being a Single-A starter to getting a test run as the Toronto Blue Jays closer at age 20. Believing he climbed too quickly, the Orioles think more experience in the proving ground of Double-A will help, and believe he has the stuff to return to starting.

Magnifico, a 25-year-old starter-turned-reliever, has a track record of having a high ground-ball rate (61.5 percent last season at Triple-A) and keeping the ball in the park (0.3 homers per nine innings in 2016), so if he can cut down on his walks from a year ago (4.8 per nine innings), he could be effective.

Faulkner, 24, and Fry, 24, might not have the same pedigree, but as lefties with good arsenals, the Orioles thought they were worth pursuing. Faulkner can throw in the mid 90s, and Fry has a plus slider.

Meanwhile, Drake, 30, couldn't match his strong minor league numbers. Even though he showed promise in the majors in September, high pitch counts, limited stuff and the fact he was out of minor league options cut his time short. Despite being big league camp regulars, neither Bridwell nor Garcia seemed to make progress over the past two years.

"It's pretty simple," Showalter said. " If you can upgrade that much, you do it. … We've run down a lot of roads with some guys. We've had them in the big leagues and the minor leagues, and they still might go out and have good careers. But if you have the chance to get inches better, we're going to get inches better."

Bridwell, 25, had success as a reliever, but his arsenal was limited — his best pitch is his changeup — and he struggled in a brief major league stint. After the Orioles sacrificed a 25-man spot to carry Garcia, 24, in 2015 as the team's Rule 5 draft pick, he struggled at Double-A last year, averaging 3.9 walks per nine innings. Gunkel, a 25-year-old who was added to the 40-man this past offseason, had put up strong Triple-A numbers, but was clearly overmatched in spring training games.

"With the moves that we've made, the players we've brought on board projected to have better skills and also would be more complementary to the major league team," Duquette said. "The right-handers we have are power pitchers. … So we added them, and obviously those pitchers have more powerful pitches than the ones we took off and with the left-handers. … We were also trying to add to the left-hander depth of our major league staff."

The Orioles' two most recent acquisitions — Magnifico and Fry — were acquired for international bonus slot money. So was left-handed starter Chris Lee in 2015. Since the Orioles don't spend much money in the international free-agent market, they were able to use those slots as trade chips. The deadline to sign international free agents during this period is June 15.

The Orioles spent just $260,000 on five international free agents during the 2016 calendar year, according to Baseball America, which is by far the least in the majors. They were one of only four teams to sign fewer than 20 players on the international market in 2016, and the only one not being penalized to sign fewer than 13.

The organization hasn't placed much emphasis on the international market in the past, and second baseman Jonathan Schoop, who was signed in 2008, is the only homegrown international player on the current 25-man roster. However, Dominican third baseman Jomar Reyes, now at High-A Frederick, is well regarded.

Even though a hard cap on international signing will be introduced this upcoming international signing period starting July 2 — teams previously paid a tax for going over their pool total — pool money can still be traded. The Orioles are one of eight teams deemed small market or small revenue that will receive a bonus pool of $5.75 million, which is the highest allotment available. So even though there's a cap, the Orioles can still use that slot money as a trade chip.

"The international slots are valuable," Duquette said. "They're actually more valuable now because the international bonus spending is a hard cap under the new basic agreement. ... You're not supposed to go over it, but you can utilize these resources to acquire additional slots to use on the international market."

eencina@baltsun.com

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