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Orioles face tough decisions on which players to protect from Rule 5 draft

Orioles face tough decisions on which players to protect from Rule 5 draft
The Orioles must decide by Thursday whether to add right-hander Mike Wright to the 40-man roster to protect him from next month's Rule 5 draft. (Eduardo A. Encina, Baltimore Sun)

The Orioles have until Thursday to set their 40-man organizational roster in order to protect minor leaguers from being selected in next month's Rule 5 draft.

Over the next two days, the Orioles will have to make several tough decisions on which players to protect. After signing right-handed reliever Oliver Drake to a major league deal Tuesday, the Orioles now have 34 players on the 40-man roster and figure to keep a few spots open in case they make free-agent moves like re-signing Nick Markakis or Nelson Cruz.

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The Orioles almost certainly will leave a spot open to make a Rule 5 selection of their own, especially since they essentially have a free roster spot because they don't have to carry first baseman Chris Davis on the 40-man roster this offseason as he remains on the restricted list with one game remaining on his 25-game suspension for a failed drug test.

The organization faces tough calls on five Rule 5-eligible players: right-hander Mike Wright, right-hander Tyler Wilson, catcher Brian Ward, right-hander Parker Bridwell and right-hander Mychal Givens. All five are players the Orioles have developed, and they'd hate to see them flourish with another organization.

Any player not on a team's 40-man roster who was signed at age 19 or older and has been in the organization for four years or was signed at age 18 or younger and has been in the organization for five years can be selected in the Rule 5 draft, which will be held Dec. 11 at baseball's winter meetings in San Diego.

Players selected in the Rule 5 draft must remain on the team's 25-man roster for the entire season. If they don't, they must be offered back to their original club.

When making decisions on whom to protect, the Orioles must ultimately ask themselves which players are capable of pitching in the major leagues next year and sticking on a major league roster for an entire season.

Both Wright and Wilson fit those qualifications, so they are the most likely to be protected.

Wright, the Orioles' third-round pick in 2011, was the organization's Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2013 after going 11-3 with a 3.11 ERA in 27 starts between Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk.

Wright's overall numbers this past season weren't great -- he was 5-11 with a 4.61 ERA at Norfolk -- but he had a 0.95 ERA with 37 strikeouts and eight walks over his last seven regular-season starts. He has been in major league spring training the past two years, so he's pretty seasoned with that atmosphere.

Wilson was the Orioles' Minor League Pitcher of the Year this past season, going 14-8 with a 3.67 ERA between Bowie and Norfolk. A 10th-round pick in 2011, Wilson enjoyed a breakout season in 2014, recording 17 quality starts in 28 outings.

Over a nine-start stretch in June, Wilson went 7-0 with a 2.36 ERA combined at the Double-A and Triple-A levels.  He also posted a 3.65 strikeout-to-walk ratio, recording 157 strikeouts and 43 walks over 166 2/3 innings in 2014. His stuff, which includes a mid-90s fastball, can play in the major leagues.

The Orioles face an interesting decision on Ward. Since there is a lack of catching depth throughout the game, there is the belief that Ward could stick as a backup in the major leagues because of his defensive abilities. He also hit .355 in 15 games in the Dominican Winter League this offseason.

Even though Ward's catch-and-throw ability is well-regarded in the Orioles' system, there are already four catchers on the 40-man roster: Matt Wieters, Caleb Joseph, Steve Clevenger and Michael Ohlman. The club also is interested in retaining free-agent catcher Nick Hundley, so Ward might be higher on the depth chart in another organization with lesser depth that needs a defensive-minded backup.

Despite both being in the Orioles organization for five years, Bridwell and Givens are still two of the organization's most promising pitchers.

Bridwell, the Orioles' ninth-round pick in 2010, has shown flashes of brilliance in his professional career, but he has struggled to find consistency. He hasn't pitched above High-A Frederick, so it would be a stretch to see him stick on a major league roster.

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Bridwell was just 7-10 with a 4.45 ERA in 2014 at Frederick, but he had more strikeouts (142) than innings pitched (141 2/3), a feat he has accomplished each of the last two seasons.

Bridwell can dazzle, as he did in his second-to-last start of the year by only allowing one hit while striking out 13 batters in eight innings against Potomac on Aug. 25. He finished the season with back-to-back quality starts but had just one quality start in eight starts before that.

Bridwell didn't allow a run in five of his eight appearances in the Arizona Fall League.

Then there's Givens, who just completed his second season in his transition to a pitcher. In 36 relief outings between Frederick and Bowie, Givens was 1-2 with a 3.53 ERA, holding batters to a .189 average.

A pitcher who threw in the high-90s in high school when the Orioles drafted him in the second round in 2009, his fastball is back in the mid-90s and his unconventional three-quarters/sidearm delivery is a weapon of its own.

Givens had a 3.09 ERA in the Arizona Fall League, posting seven scoreless outings in 10 appearances.

The Orioles don't have to protect right-hander Zach Davies, who followed a strong 2014 season at Bowie with a spectacular showing in the Arizona Fall League. Davies was 3-0 with a 1.75 ERA in seven starts in Arizona, and he allowed just one earned run in his last 21 innings. The Orioles won't need to place Davies on the 40-man roster until this time next year.

Cuban outfielder Dariel Alvarez, who had a breakout year in 2014, also doesn't need to be protected this year, and first base prospect Christian Walker, the Orioles' Minor League Player of the Year was placed on the 40-man roster when he was promoted to the major leagues in September. Alvarez and Walker are the Orioles' top two position-player prospects.

The Orioles successfully carried two recent Rule 5 selections for the entire season -- utility infielder Ryan Flaherty in 2012 and left-hander reliever T.J. McFarland in 2013.

The Orioles selected third baseman Michael Almanzar last season, but sent him back to the Boston Red Sox. They later re-acquired Almanzar from Boston in August, and re-signed him Wednesday to a minor league deal after he tested free agency.

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