Every autumn, dozens of players get added to the 30 MLB rosters to ensure that they aren’t selected in the December Rule 5 draft, in which prospects who don’t fit on the 40-man roster are eligible to be picked off after at least four years in professional baseball.
For some teams, those players are undoubted cornerstones of the future. For others, they are expected to step in and contribute immediately.
While all talented and having achieved various levels of success, the four players the Orioles added this week — infielder Ryan Mountcastle, pitchers Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer and outfielder Ryan McKenna — know there’s plenty of work to be done before they’re finished products.
In a way, they mirror the team they’ll soon be suiting up for on the major league level.
“It’s an honor to be added to the roster,” Akin said on a conference call with reporters Thursday. “It just goes to show all the hard work that I put in so far, and I’m just one step closer to the ultimate goal of becoming a big leaguer.”
Said Kremer: “It makes us feel like we’re on the right track and we’re taking strides in the direction that they want and we want, with the ultimate goal of getting to the big leagues and staying up there, rather than being a guy that comes up and down."
For the two pitchers, Akin and Kremer, there’s certainly a connecting thread in regard to the team’s plans for them. Akin, who said he threw 78% fastballs in 2018 in Double-A Bowie, spent all of 2019 at Triple-A Norfolk working to lower that number and get comfortable using his slider and changeup in different counts.
That had something to do with the fact that he walked nearly five batters per nine innings with a career-high 1.51 WHIP, but he otherwise didn’t do much to diminish his stock in the organization. The fact that he bought in to those changes helped his cause as well.
“What we came to was that was the goal, to throw off-speed pitches in counts where I didn’t feel comfortable — when I was behind in the count, when I was ahead in the count,” Akin said. “It would help develop those pitches, and also help me become comfortable with them and bring that part of my repertoire of pitching, throwing all three pitches in any count instead of being so predictable. I think that was big.”
Kremer, who spent most of this year at Bowie before an August promotion to Norfolk, is in a similar spot. He got this far with the ability to locate his fastball and miss bats with an above-average curveball, but spent 2019 and his time in the Arizona Fall League trying to get himself more comfortable and consistent with his slider and changeup.
“I really prided myself on trying to throw sliders and changeups when I normally wouldn’t, and how to get a comfortable feel and consistency for break,” Kremer said.
“I would say that I need to show a consistent feel for all four pitches and be able to get guys out efficiently, rather than having them wait around in late counts, 2-2, 3-2 counts a lot, and always have a plan going after guys and nurturing confidence. That’s probably the biggest thing for me.”
Though being on the roster makes each player a contender to pitch for the Orioles next year, it’s fair to say that when they do, it will only be when the organization believes their development at Triple-A is accomplished and there’s a steady rotation spot available for them.
Such a high standard will also be applied to Mountcastle, a career .295 minor league hitter who had a career year with 25 home runs at Norfolk that earned him International League Most Valuable Player honors. Executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias has been clear that Mountcastle will likely start 2020 in the minors to work on his defense and plate discipline — which are often cited when standout bats get close to the majors as a way to extend their service time. But they’re also real things that even the most developed bat in the system needs to work on, and he’s OK with that.
“I’m playing new positions, first base and third and left,” Mountcastle said. “Just getting some extra reps out there in the offseason will help. Plate discipline is probably a little bit tougher [in the offseason]. Just seeing more pitching and better pitching in big-league camp or whatever it is, that will definitely help in that aspect.”
Like Mountcastle, McKenna was in major league camp as a nonroster invitee in 2019 and will be back as a rostered player this spring. A down year at Bowie means he’ll be like the rest of the roster additions — on the radar because his status, but with plenty of room to grow.
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“For me as a player, I need to be a little more consistent with all of my tools,” McKenna said. “I know I can impact the game in different ways, and I definitely feel like I can produce in a lot of different areas. I think that for me is a focus, and I’m going to try to work on it going forward.”