Rule 5 outfielder Joey Rickard begins push to stay with Orioles

Even after losing out on Dexter Fowler, it could be a challenge for Orioles to keep outfielder Joey Rickard.

For many of the Rule 5 picks who arrive at spring training this time of the year and are given an opportunity to make a major league roster, timing is everything.

Orioles outfielder Joey Rickard, who was selected from the Tampa Bay Rays in this year's Rule 5 draft, knows a little about timing. Just last year, he began the season in High-A because of an organizational roster crunch after finishing the previous season at the Double-A level.

Now, after a breakthrough year that saw Rickard jump all the way to Triple-A, the 24-year-old is on the doorstep of a major league job, trying to make the Orioles roster as a reserve outfielder.

"I kind of like how he started coming along in the last year in and a half or whatever," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said Saturday. "If you look at where he was and all of a sudden where he's kind of going, you're intrigued by whether you're catching him at the right time. He's a real athletic guy, real engaged. He's been impressive. I'm glad we took him."

The Orioles have been highly successful in recent years at retaining their Rule 5 picks. They've been able to carry three of their five Rule 5 acquisitions over the past four years, holding on to utility man Ryan Flaherty, left-hander T.J. McFarland and right-hander Jason Garcia.

As the Orioles open their Grapefruit League schedule Tuesday against the Atlanta Braves in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., they will take a long, hard look at Rickard, who can play all three outfield positions, brings speed on the bases and an emerging bat.

"I've always played the Rule 5 guys a lot," Showalter said. "Yeah, he's going to play a lot, but what's a lot? The last four innings of a game? He's going to need a couple pairs of gray [road uniform] pants. I can tell you that, especially if he slides a lot. But he's interesting."

Rickard batted leadoff in Saturday's intrasquad game — the Orioles' first game competition of the spring after eight days of workouts — reaching on an error and stealing second base.

The Orioles' failed pursuit of outfielder Dexter Fowler gives Rickard's chances of making the club larger life. Barring more moves, Mark Trumbo — who could slot as the team's designated hitter — is one option to see more time in right field. As could Nolan Reimold.

That makes the Orioles' need for a reserve outfielder who can play all three outfield positions — most importantly center to back up starter Adam Jones — and offer speed off the bench more pressing.

Rickard's main competition would be Reimold, who has played center field, batted leadoff and is a valued on-base guy. Showalter said it is possible that both Rickard and Reimold make the team, depending on the construction of the rest of the roster.

"It's hard not to [think about it]," Rickard said about following the roster spot competition. "But I try to just control what I can control in a way and that's how I've been successful in the past, and that's what I'm going to stick to."

Multiple times this spring, Showalter had compared Rickard's skill set to that of former Orioles outfielder David Lough, only with more power. Lough was a valuable bench piece because of his ability to play all three outfield positions and his speed on the bases.

Rickard saw his stock rise over the past season. He started in the High-A Florida State League in stride, and he took advantage when injuries rocked the organization, creating the opportunity for Rickard to move up the Tampa Bay minor league ladder.

After just 23 games at High-A Charlotte, where he posted a .436 on-base percentage, he was promoted to Double-A Montgomery by the second week of May. He hit .322/.420/.479 with 19 doubles six triples and 19 steals in 23 attempts over 65 games with the Biscuits. In August, he earned another promotion to Triple-A Durham, where he hit even better, posting a .360/.437/.472 hitting line in 29 games.

"Joey started the year in Single-A and we asked him to be patient and if the opportunity arose, he'd be the first guy because he played in Double-A before," Rays minor league director Mitch Lukevics said. "We had an injury-ridden major league season and that trickled down to the minors and that got Joey to Triple-A. … He kept holding his own and doing well. He got more at-bats, more reps. He's a kid with good character, a hard worker and he put himself in that position. It's just unfortunate for us that we didn't have enough space for him."

Rickard went into last season as a career .265 hitter in the minors, but in 2015, he hit .321 as he jumped two levels.

"He had the skills," Lukevics said. "He has foot speed, arm speed, bat speed. … He's a solid young man. He had the work ethic and he had the intangibles. And with that, and more at-bats, he took advantage of the opportunities he received last year. Sometimes kids are immature and the mental doesn't equal the physical. But in his case you didn't have to worry about that. The mental was there. You just had to worry about the physical. And as the years went on, he got stronger and he got better."

Rickard said the biggest adjustment he made last season, his fourth in the minor leagues, was learning to relax at the plate. He learned to wait for the pitch to get deeper in the zone and allowed his hands to do the work.

"Last year, I just taught myself how to relax more and wait for the pitches to come to me," Rickard said. "You don't realize how much time you really have during a pitch at the plate.

"The main thing is just that the more games you play, the more pitches you see, the more confident you play. So I'd say that confidence was a big part of it, which helped me relax, which helped me not jump at the ball. That helped me see the ball better. It really just goes down the line that this is a process."

Rickard then saw success this season playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic, hitting .277/.344/.450 with six homers in 50 games for Leones del Escogido.

"If he had stayed the whole time, he probably would have been the MVP of the Dominican League," Showalter said. "He really came on and he carried over the power there. ... He's a real athletic guy who runs well. He's a baseball player. We'll see if it carries out."

Lukevics said Rickard's work ethic was always there. He took to playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic. Two offseasons ago, Rickard went to Australia to play winter ball.

That all paid off last year. But despite moving up in the Rays minor league system, Rickard wasn't added to Tampa Bay's 40-man roster, leaving him unprotected for the Rule 5 draft.

"Organizations have a hard time protecting 43 guys when you have a 40-man roster and that's unfortunately what happened with Joey, but Joey did everything he was asked to do here," Lukevics said. "… He showed that dedication a player needs to get better and now he has an opportunity to take advantage of that in Baltimore."

Even if Rickard makes the major league club out of camp, the Orioles still face the challenge of keeping him. As a Rule 5 player, Rickard must remain on the Orioles roster during the entire regular season. (He must stay on the active 25-man roster for 90 days, not including any disabled list stints.) Otherwise, he must be placed on waivers — any claiming team must adhere to the same Rule 5 parameters — and then be offered back to the Rays.

"You always talk about the right 25 or the best 25," Showalter said. "I'm all about the best 25. That makes it right. … We want to be at our best on Opening Day. We have some depth. The problem is keeping it."

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