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Orioles minor league Rule 5 pick Cole Uvila excited to see ‘where this relationship takes me’

Long before Cole Uvila envisioned himself as a pitcher capable of reaching the cusp of the major leagues, he was a teenager enamored with FanGraphs and all the information the popular baseball statistics and analysis site had to offer his fandom.

Nearly a decade later, as a blossoming right-handed reliever in the Texas Rangers organization, Uvila was featured in a FanGraphs article dubbing him a “spin monster,” largely for the top-tier rotation on his curveball. That pitch is no longer part of his repertoire, but Uvila believes the arsenal he’s bringing to the Orioles after they selected him in last week’s minor league Rule 5 draft is one that can lead him to future success.

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“Just in the conversations I’ve had, they liked what I’ve been doing,” Uvila said. “It doesn’t seem like they’re wanting to reinvent the wheel with me or anything. So, kind of just keep going with what I’ve been working on the past few years and then anything that they add or come up with, I’m always open to.”

The Orioles have gotten that impression as well, with director of pro scouting Mike Snyder describing Uvila as “knowledgeable about what he wants to achieve on the mound.”

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“We’ve been attracted to Cole Uvila for three or four years now, envisioning him as a multi-pitch reliever,” Snyder said in a statement. “He shows a real feel for pitch design, overhauling his repertoire in a number of ways the last several years. He has a penchant for generating movement on all his secondaries. We’re hopeful that we can help him harness the bat-missing ability to help achieve sustainable success. We know he has the ability, we know he puts the work in, and we know we have the right infrastructure in our player development group to support him.”

Uvila, who turns 28 next month, was the second of Baltimore’s effectively three Rule 5 selections in the Triple-A phase, with the club adding two other righty relievers in first-round pick Nolan Hoffman from the Seattle Mariners organization and trading cash for Tommy Wilson after Seattle selected him from the New York Mets. The major league portion of the Rule 5 draft, postponed amid Major League Baseball’s lockout of the players, requires that selected players remain in the big leagues all season or be returned to their former organization; the minor league phase has no such stipulation.

Of the Orioles’ trio of selected arms, Uvila is closest to the majors, having pitched for the Rangers’ Double-A and Triple-A affiliates in 2021. He’s reached the highest rung of the minors despite being an older, late draftee, selected by Texas in 2018′s 40th round as a 24-year-old after spending time at three college programs and undergoing Tommy John surgery. But that status seemingly didn’t slow him. By the time he made his Triple-A debut this August, his career minor league ERA was 2.19, and he had struck out 36% of the batters he had faced.

His moniker-inducing curveball played a large role in that success, working well off his high-fastball offerings. He told FanGraphs the pitch’s spin rate had topped out at 3,378 rpm in the Arizona Fall League’s all-star game in 2019; only eight pitchers in the majors reached that mark that season, according to Statcast. The curve featured massive break as well, but its strengths also proved to be weaknesses.

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“The curveball was a pitch that kind of initially put me on everybody’s radar. It was an analytics darling there for a while, but I really had a hard time commanding it,” Uvila said. “It just had a lot of spin, a lot of movement. It was sort of hard for me to be really consistent with it. If I was 21, 22 years old, playing in Arizona or playing in Low-A, it’s fine, but I’m getting a little bit older.”

Instead, he began throwing a slider, a faster pitch with less break. After the cancellation of the minor leagues in 2020, Uvila first got to put it to use in pro ball this past season, getting the overall results at Double-A he managed at lower levels. But that success didn’t carry over into Triple-A, where for the first time in his career, he was young for the league.

He was unable to get the experienced hitters he was facing to chase his breaking ball in the same way opponents had in the past. His strikeout percentage plummeted to 15.8% as he posted an 8.74 ERA over 16 relief outings.

“The breaking ball command was essentially useless throughout my time in Triple-A, just because I think the strike percentage on it was around 40%, and hitters at that level are just good enough to lay off of it when it’s in the dirt,” Uvila said. “I was basically able to get everybody to two strikes with fastball-changeup and not able to put anybody away.

“I got kicked in the teeth for two months straight.”

Uvila, though, is grateful for the experience. Every player goes through a stretch like that, he said, and he’s glad his came while he was still in the minors, providing an opportunity to learn from it. Those struggles possibly allowed the Orioles to benefit, with a better performance in Triple-A potentially prompting Texas to protect Uvila in the Rule 5 draft.

A week into his tenure as an Oriole, Uvila has not yet had discussions about what specifically the team sees in him, with most conversations to this point being welcoming introductions. In the meantime, he’s using the lessons learned in Triple-A to improve his command; his focus is on average miss distance, a measure of how far a pitch ends up away from where the catcher set up. He said his stuff is good enough that getting his misses close to the league averages “should allow me to have a lot of success.”

He looks forward to having it with the Orioles.

“The Rangers were really good to me. They gave me opportunities that most 40th-round 24-year-olds wouldn’t get,” Uvila said. “But I’ve always said the reason I wanted to be acquired by a team was just to see why. I’ve always wondered if there was an org that saw something in me the Rangers didn’t, and I don’t know if that is the case with the Orioles, but whenever I do get to sit down with them and start having conversations with coaches or coordinators or whatever it may be, honestly, the thing I’m excited about is just to ask them why they wanted me.

“There may be something there that I’ve missed, or there may be something there that they want. I don’t know what it may be. But I think that’s probably the thing that excites me the most, just where this relationship takes me.”

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