The Orioles used the top pick in Thursday's Rule 5 draft, which wraps up baseball's winter meetings, on shortstop Richie Martin from the Oakland Athletics before trading for Philadelphia Phillies Rule 5 infielder Drew Jackson.
Taken together, the selections address a significant area of need in the Orioles organization and, according to director of baseball operations Tripp Norton, fit well with executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias’ goals of “increasing the overall value in the organization, and getting better and getting more depth.”
“Obviously, shortstop is a hole for us right now with [Tim] Beckham being nontendered,” Norton said. “We have Jonathan Villar, who can also play shortstop. Acquiring both Richie and Drew gives us options to look at in spring training to see what we can do with our shortstop situation. All three can also play second base, too, so we have versatility in addition to different options at shortstop.”
Martin, who turns 24 on Dec. 22, was Oakland’s first-round draft pick in 2015 out of the University of Florida. An athletic and rangy shortstop whose future at the position was never in question, his offensive game has been more based on his ability to work an at-bat and get on base than anything else. Much of that description still fits.
He skipped Low-A and began his first full season in 2016 at High-A Stockton, but hit .235 with a .649 OPS that year, during which he also played five games at Double-A Midland. He spent most of 2017 at Midland with 23 games at Stockton, and hit a near-identical .234 with a .643 OPS.
But back at Midland for all of 2018, Martin broke out, batting .300/.368/.439 in 118 games, avoiding injury for the first time in his career and seeing the results that correspond with daily action. His 43 extra-base hits nearly doubled the 56 he'd entered the year with.
“With Richie, we saw him as an above-average defender with plus range and a plus arm at short, somebody who can also move over and play second base,” Norton said. “He had a resurgence offensively in Double-A. He hit .300, posted like an .807 OPS, so we think that the bat is trending up. He might be an option for us at the shortstop position coming into spring training, to see what he can do.“
Still, Martin wasn't added to the 40-man roster of an Athletics organization that watched his breakout firsthand. His availability, plus the fact that the Orioles nontendered Beckham, made his selection a popular one among Rule 5 speculators, though executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said earlier this week that the team viewed Jonathan Villar as its everyday shortstop.
“There was a lot of discussion on it,” Norton said. “It wasn't a slam dunk. We spent a few days talking about it, and certainly looking at all of our options. At the end, we kept coming back to Richie.”
Jackson, a 2015 fifth-round pick of the Seattle Mariners, reached Double-A Tulsa in 2017 with the Los Angeles Dodgers organization and spent all of 2018 there. Even with four seasons in the minors on his resume, Jackson is still more promise than results after hitting .251/.356/.447 with 15 home runs and 20 doubles for Tulsa this year. Norton compared him to former Orioles Rule 5 pick Ryan Flaherty in that he’s tall and lanky, but described the skill set as similar to Martin’s.
“He's also played a lot of short and a lot of second in the minor leagues, and he also posted an .800 OPS, too,” Norton said. “We feel like offensively, they're similar players, and both can provide above-average defense. That's what we're looking to do.”
Jackson was the Phillies’ selection with the 11th pick in the Rule 5 draft, and once the event completed, the Orioles sent international bonus slot money and cash to the Phillies. The Orioles have significant international bonus slot money after driving their pool up near $7 million with trades in an effort to sign Cuban free agents Victor Victor Mesa, Victor Mesa Jr. and Sandy Gaston. They missed out on all three, and have spent just shy of $1 million on international free agents this signing period.
According to the stipulations attached to Rule 5 selections, the Orioles must keep Martin and Jackson on their 25-man active roster for the entire season, or else send them through waivers to offer them to other clubs before being offered back to their original teams. Players are eligible for the Rule 5 draft after four professional seasons if they sign their first contract and appear in a minor league game after they turn 19, or after their fifth season if they sign before age 19.
Martin and Jackson join a list of Orioles Rule 5 picks that include Flaherty, T.J. McFarland, Joey Rickard, Anthony Santander and Pedro Araujo.
With the top pick in the minor league Rule 5 draft, the Orioles selected right-hander Taylor Grover, who had just signed a minor league deal with the Cincinnati Reds after spending 2018 out of affiliated baseball, pitching for the Chicago Dogs of the American Association and the Long Island Ducks of the Atlantic League.
A former 10th-round pick of the Boston Red Sox, Grover was released after the 2017 season — when he had a 5.16 ERA in his second go-round at Double-A Portland. At the time, he featured a low-90s fastball that topped out at 97-98 mph. In the interim, Grover went to spring training with the Arizona Diamondbacks and showed poor command, but experienced a significant jump in velocity, popping up to a reported 102 mph in the independent leagues and later in the Venezuelan Winter League.
Director of minor league operations Kent Qualls called the spike in his pitches “pretty intriguing.”
“Taylor Grover has improved performance,” Qualls said. “He obviously pitched independent ball last year, but struck out 12 [batters] per nine. He's got an above-average fastball, 95-98 [mph]. He hit 100 numerous times last year, [with] what his manager described to me as a wipeout slider, and our analytics, TrackMan data kind of backed that up. He's a guy that had increased performance last year, and our pitching people are excited to bring him to the organization and see where we can take him.”
The Orioles didn't make a second minor league Rule 5 pick, but lost right-hander Jeffeson Medina to the Texas Rangers, outfielder Randolph Gassaway to the Pittsburgh Pirates, infielder Corban Joseph to the Athletics and first baseman Wilson García to the Cleveland Indians.