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Adding ‘fairly polished’ group of Rule 5-eligible prospects to 40-man roster next on Orioles’ to-do list

Having exercised José Iglesias’ 2021 option and started to adjust their 40-man roster, the Orioles have two weeks to address the next item on their offseason agenda: finalizing which eligible prospects they will protect from the Rule 5 draft.

Earlier this week, Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias declined to offer a specific number of prospects they hope to add to their 40-man roster by the Nov. 20 deadline, but he noted that most of those eligible have high-minors experience and will be ready to contribute to the majors in the near future.

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"At this point, we have the 40-man space, and our planning indicates that hopefully we’ll be able to be pretty aggressive in adding these guys and be protective of our prospects with what we’re trying to do in terms of a rebuild,” Elias said. “But also, I think we’re fortunate that the group that we have to add, it’s a pretty big-league-ready group. These aren’t guys, like, in A-ball or even High-A. These are Double-A, Triple-A players that are fairly polished, and so when they do get added to the 40-man roster, they’ll be pretty functional members of that roster, if not right away, then very soon. That always makes the decisions easier.”

Players eligible to be selected by other teams in Dec. 10′s Rule 5 draft are those not on their current organization’s 40-man roster who signed at 18 years old or younger at least five years ago or 19 years old or older at least four years ago. Rule 5 draftees are required to remain on the selecting team’s major league roster all the season or, after clearing waivers, be offered back to their original organization. An Orioles minor leaguer hasn’t been taken in the Rule 5 draft since 2015, and three of the four prospects they added last year — Ryan Mountcastle, Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer — made their major league debuts in 2020.

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With two weeks before the deadline, the Orioles have five openings on their 40-man roster, though they could choose to not fill all of those to make their own Rule 5 selections. Likewise, they potentially have more than five prospects worthy of protection and could create more openings by shedding other players from the roster. Regardless, Elias said he’s confident about the state of the roster.

“While this sounds a little maybe strange for a team that was in fourth place last year with a losing record and has not been shy about saying that it’s rebuilding, I look at the players that either are already on our 40-man roster or soon to be on our 40-man roster, and it’s a very functional group that all of whom have settled roles for the team, or we want to audition some of these guys and leave paths open for them this year,” he said. “I do feel like this is a group that’s not full of holes right now, and our team is improving.”

Here’s a look at the Orioles' notable Rule 5 eligible players, including three products of the Manny Machado trade and numerous high-minors pitchers.

Yusniel Díaz prepares to catch a ball during outfield drills Feb. 18, 2020.
Yusniel Díaz prepares to catch a ball during outfield drills Feb. 18, 2020. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

Yusniel Díaz

Elias said, when all of the Orioles' 40-man maneuvering is complete, the roster will include at least six outfielders “that are high quality, that are interesting young guys.” It’s a near certainty Díaz will be part of that group.

The gem of the trade that sent Machado to the Los Angeles Dodgers in July 2018, Díaz has spent the entirety of his Orioles tenure in Bowie, playing for the Double-A Baysox from the trade through 2019 before spending 2020 at the alternate training site. If not for the coronavirus pandemic, Díaz likely would’ve started a traditional campaign with Triple-A Norfolk before potentially making his debut, but instead, he’ll try to follow that path in 2021 and find a way into an outfield that features other young talent in Anthony Santander, Ryan Mountcastle, Austin Hays, Cedric Mullins and DJ Stewart.

Orioles pitching prospect Michael Baumann threw the third no-hitter in Baysox history.
Orioles pitching prospect Michael Baumann threw the third no-hitter in Baysox history. (Terrance Williams/For The Capital)

Michael Baumann

Beyond Díaz, Baumann is likely the closest to a lock among these players. He shared the organization’s Jim Palmer Minor League Pitcher of the Year honor in 2019 with Grayson Rodriguez, the Orioles' top pitching prospect.

Baumann began that season with High-A Frederick, started the Carolina League All-Star Game and was promoted to Bowie, where he threw a no-hitter among 13 outings in which he posted a 2.31 ERA. He likely would have reached Triple-A this year, and his season was cut short when he suffered a flexor strain at the alternate site, but the Orioles expect him to be healthy come spring.

Orioles left-hander Zac Lowther throws live batting practice during spring training Feb. 19, 2020.
Orioles left-hander Zac Lowther throws live batting practice during spring training Feb. 19, 2020. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

Zac Lowther

Lowther was a late addition to Baltimore’s player pool because of an injury, though that lost time was likely made up for with his participation in the club’s fall instructional camp in Sarasota, Florida. Regardless of whatever he might’ve missed out on this summer, his career production and experience in the high minors should lead to inclusion.

In three minor league seasons, the left-hander has a 2.26 ERA across 61 appearances, including 26 starts for Bowie in 2019 in which he struck out more than a batter an inning with a 2.55 ERA. He’s likely ticketed for Norfolk’s rotation to start 2021.

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Infielder Rylan Bannon catches a ball during infield drills during spring training Feb. 17, 2020.
Infielder Rylan Bannon catches a ball during infield drills during spring training Feb. 17, 2020. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

Rylan Bannon

Like Díaz, Bannon joined the Orioles through the Machado trade. Primarily a third baseman who has also worked at second, Bannon is the only one of the prominent Rule 5 eligible prospects who has already played at Triple-A while in the Orioles' organization.

In 2019, he spent most of the season with Bowie and was solid with a .255/.345/.394 batting line, but he thrived in a 20-game stint with Norfolk, hitting .317/.344/.549. He was a late add to Baltimore’s player pool and alternate site before participating in the instructional league, giving him an opportunity to audition to join the 40-man roster.

Orioles pitcher Zach Pop is pictured in 2019.
Orioles pitcher Zach Pop is pictured in 2019.

Zach Pop

Pop, like Kremer, Díaz and Bannon, was a piece in the Machado trade. A right-handed relief prospect, he posted a 1.97 ERA in 22 outings split across two seasons with the organization before undergoing Tommy John surgery and missing the rest of 2019 and all of 2020.

He’s expected to be healthy for 2021, and if the Orioles don’t add him, it’s possible another organization might try to add him as a piece to its bullpen through the Rule 5 draft.

Isaac Mattson

Mattson, a right-handed reliever, has the distinction of being the only player on this list who was acquired by Elias. The most seasoned of the four pitchers the Orioles got from the Los Angeles Angels from Dylan Bundy, the right-hander made a handful of appearances in spring training as a call-up from minor league camp. Mattson then spent the summer at the Orioles' alternate site.

Because of the coronavirus shutdown, Mattson has yet to make an appearance for an Orioles affiliate, but he had a 2.89 ERA while striking out nearly 11 batters per nine innings during his time in the Angels organization. In 2019, he had a 2.33 ERA across three levels, including Double-A and Triple-A, with 110 strikeouts in 73⅓ innings, a 13.5 K/9.

Orioles pitcher Alex Wells tosses a ball to first during fielding drills Feb. 14, 2020.
Orioles pitcher Alex Wells tosses a ball to first during fielding drills Feb. 14, 2020. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

Alexander Wells

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Similarly to Lowther, Wells is a crafty left-hander who pitched effectively at Double-A in 2019. Unlike Lowther, the Australian didn’t get to participate at either the alternate site or instructional league.

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The Orioles' 2017 Minor League Pitcher of Year, Wells had a 2.38 ERA in 25 with Low-A Delmarva that year, and in his minor league career, he’s posted a 3.26 mark. All 86 of his outings in the organization have come as a starter, but pitching primarily relief in the Arizona Fall League last year, he allowed one run in 15⅔ innings.

Orioles shortstop prospect Mason McCoy.
Orioles shortstop prospect Mason McCoy. (Alexis Oser / Bowie Baysox)

Mason McCoy

McCoy also wasn’t included at either camp, but the Orioles' lack of high-minors shortstop depth plays in his favor. He hit .266/.326/.343 with Bowie in 2019 after putting up a .925 OPS in High-A the first month of that season.

The club picked up Iglesias' option, it has other major leaguers capable of playing shortstop if needed, and early rounds of recent drafts have been devoted to up-the-middle talent. But of the Orioles' top 30 prospects entering 2020, McCoy, a sixth-round pick in 2017, was the only one who was a shortstop with experience at Double-A or higher. This year’s draft class pushed him out of that top 30, but the Orioles could decide McCoy’s position makes him worth adding to the 40-man roster.

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