San Diego — The Orioles used Thursday’s Rule 5 draft to select a pair of successful minor league arms, Brandon Bailey and Michael Rucker, who they hope will contribute to their major league pitching depth as they wait for the expected wave of homegrown pitching.
Bailey, a starting pitcher from the Houston Astros system, and Rucker, a swingman who offers versatility after pitching this year in the high minors for the Chicago Cubs, will compete for spots on the Opening Day roster in spring training and could each feature in what’s a thin pool of starting rotation candidates.
“Bailey has a strong track record of performance everywhere he’s been, including at the Double-A level in a starting capacity,” Orioles pro scouting director Mike Snyder said. “He has a full assortment of weapons to left-handed hitters and right-handed hitters, and we’re excited to see what he can do in the spring. Rucker pitches off a riding fastball, two plus breaking balls, and he mixes in a nice changeup as well. We think both players have an interesting mix of strike-throwing ability as well as strong pitches to help them compete in the American League East.”
Rule 5 draft picks must spend the entire season on the active roster or they will be returned to their previous team after passing through waivers.
Executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias said Wednesday that the team could come away with one or two starting rotation options in the Rule 5 draft, even if that’s not a traditional avenue to find starters.
“It probably speaks a little bit to our pitching situation, but some of these organizations are pretty stocked and the 40-man roster is kind of tight,” Elias said.
“With these guys in particular, this is a calculated risk,” Snyder said. “We like both of these players. We think they have a good shot. I don’t think there’s any more or less pressure on our standpoint. For them, it’s a great opportunity. It’s a great opportunity to come in and win a spot out of camp.”
Bailey, a sixth-round draft pick out of Gonzaga in 2016 by the Oakland Athletics, came to the Astros in a November 2017 trade for outfielder Ramón Laureano.
The 25-year-old spent all of 2019 at Double-A Corpus Christi, recording a 3.30 ERA in 22 appearances (17 starts) while striking out 103 batters in 92⅔ innings with a 1.22 ERA. In 83 career minor league appearances, 58 of which were starts, Bailey has a career 3.07 ERA with a 1.14 ERA and 10.44 strikeouts per nine innings.
“He works primarily again off a riding fastball, and he pitches off a changeup to left-handers and right-handers as well, and two breaking balls that are real weapons for him,” Snyder said. "That’s another important piece of this, that you need to be able to throw strikes, you need to be able to get swings and misses out of the zone to be able to compete in the league that we’re in, the division that we’re in.
“You really have to have a blend of performance, of pitch mix, and an ability to throw strikes. We think that he for sure fits those characteristics.”
Rucker, 25, was an 11th-round pick out of Brigham Young for the Cubs in 2016 and started until the 2019 season, when he had a 4.18 ERA while striking out 93 batters in 79⅔ innings of relief between Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa.
While Rucker’s strikeout numbers went up in the bullpen, he had plenty of success in the rotation in 2017 and 2018. Rucker had a 3.73 ERA with a 1.12 WHIP in 26 starts for Tennessee in 2018.
“He was working this year in a piggyback capacity,” Snyder said. “He had scheduled outings, and he had been pitching as a starter in 2018 and there was an uptick in performance in 2019. One of the intriguing things about him is he offers some flexibility. I think we’re going in with an open mind to March and seeing what the best role for both of these players can be.”
The Orioles have a deep history of selecting players in the Rule 5 draft, which allows teams to take young players from other teams’ farm systems who aren’t on their 40-man roster and place them on their own active roster.
In 2018, they ended up with shortstop Richie Martin and utility man Drew Jackson, though Jackson barely lasted a week before he was returned to the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Orioles took three pitchers in 2017, with Pedro Araujo lasting the longest. Their 2016 Rule 5 pick, outfielder Anthony Santander, slugged 20 home runs in a half-season in 2019 to make him their most productive such selection in recent memory.
Other notable picks this decade include outfielder Joey Rickard, left-hander T.J. McFarland and infielder Ryan Flaherty.
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The Orioles didn’t lose any players in the major league phase of the Rule 5 draft, with right-handers Cody Sedlock and Gray Fenter among the top players left available, but the first pick in the minor league phase by the Detroit Tigers was right-hander Ruben Garcia, who pitched in relief at Low-A Delmarva in 2019.
When the Orioles pick came up next, they selected outfielder Cristopher Céspedes from the Cleveland Indians, the first of their two players taken in the minor league phase. Céspedes, 21, broke out by batting .326 with a .930 OPS in the rookie-level Arizona League and, according to FanGraphs, had a 96 mph average exit velocity that ranked second-highest in the entire minor leagues in 2019.
Second baseman Wilbis Santiago, also an Indians farmhand, is a career .305 minor league hitter who played at High-A Lynchburg in 2019.
“Really just looking to add depth to the system, two guys that are relatively young,” director of minor league operations Kent Qualls said.
Céspedes, Qualls said, “still has a couple years of control and we liked a lot of his batted ball metrics and thought he’s a nice addition to our system,” while Santiago is "a little bit different profile.
“Hits for a high batting average, really low strikeout rate, only about 8% throughout his career,” Qualls said. “We have very few guys kind of in that range and kind of project that he could possibly be in Bowie. He’s going to be a 23-year-old. Both of these guys have good defense, but really interesting bats that our hitting coaches can work with. We’re happy to add them to the club.”
The Orioles also lost right-hander Jhon Peluffo to the Indians in the minor league phase. While major leaguers come with plenty of roster restrictions, no such qualifiers exist for the minor league phase.