Analytically minded front offices such as the Orioles’ typically use the past to try to predict the future. That methodology can be applied to guessing how they’ll approach protecting eligible prospects from the Rule 5 draft by Friday’s deadline.
The Orioles have eight openings on their 40-man roster, though it’s doubtful they use protections to fill them all. They’ll likely want to make their own pick — or several — in the Rule 5 draft, should it happen next month pending negotiations between the league and the players union over the next Collective Bargaining Agreement, which expires Dec. 1. By virtue of finishing with baseball’s worst record this past season, they’ll also be first in line to claim any players other teams remove from their 40-man rosters in an effort to protect prospects.
Players not on a team’s 40-man roster after either four years for players who signed at 19 or older or five years for those who signed at 18 or younger are eligible to be taken by another organization in the Rule 5 draft. As it stands, the Orioles seem to have four prospects assured of being protected. Left-hander DL Hall is Baltimore’s No. 3 prospect, trailing only baseball’s top position player and pitching prospects in catcher Adley Rutschman and right-hander Grayson Rodriguez. Right-hander Kyle Bradish, the best-regarded arm of the four the Orioles received from the Los Angeles Angels for Dylan Bundy, leads the next rung of the organization’s pitching prospects.
Likewise, left-hander Kevin Smith and infielder Terrin Vavra were pieces acquired in 2020 deadline deals for relievers Miguel Castro and Mychal Givens, respectively, and are both regarded among the organizations’ top score of prospects.
But that leaves several players who could potentially help the Orioles in 2022 and beyond exposed to other teams. The three crops of protected prospects under executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias could help indicate which Baltimore might add to the above quartet.
Relievers rarely protected
Days after Elias officially became their general manager in November 2018, the Orioles added right-hander Dillon Tate to the 40-man roster as their lone protecting move, with many of the other would-be eligibles having been added late in that season. Although Tate has since developed into a key member of Baltimore’s bullpen, he was, at the time, a starter. He transitioned to a reliever early in the 2019 season and reached the majors not long after.
Of the 11 players the Orioles have protected under Elias, seven have been pitchers, and only one was already being developed as a reliever. The exception was right-hander Isaac Mattson, who, like Bradish, was part of the Bundy trade and whose high strikeout rates in the minors led Baltimore to believe he could be taken in the Rule 5 draft. The Orioles decided not to protect Zach Pop, a product of the Manny Machado trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers, coming off Tommy John surgery, and he spent all of 2021 with the Miami Marlins as a Rule 5 pick, posting a 4.12 ERA.
There’s potential for two bullpen pieces in this year’s class. Hard-throwing right-hander Félix Bautista struck out nearly 40% of the batters he faced across three levels in 2021, and his stuff would make him an intriguing selection for any team. Left-hander Nick Vespi has impressed in the Arizona Fall League after he struggled following a promotion to Triple-A Norfolk, but the high walk rate he carried through the regular season has continued and might be enough to scare away other teams.
No selections from low minors
In the 2020 Rule 5 draft, the Orioles selected a pair of pitchers who had combined for six appearances in Double-A or higher, though that was partially a product of the pandemic-caused cancellation of the 2020 minor league season.
For their willingness to use the Rule 5 draft to add players with little to no high minors experience, the Orioles haven’t yet protected a prospect of the same status. All 11 of the minor leaguers they’ve protected had substantial experience in at least Double-A; only five had played in Triple-A, but that figure likely would have been nine if not for the lost minor league campaign. Given that players are required to remain in the majors all year for the selecting organization to retain them, those from the low minors are less likely to be selected and thus more likely for their current team to leave them unprotected.
This history means infielder Adam Hall is seemingly a longshot to be protected. Baltimore’s second-round pick in 2017, Hall entered the season as Baltimore’s No. 16 prospect, according to Baseball America, but had trouble offensively in High-A. The Orioles are fans of right-hander Brenan Hanifee, but Tommy John surgery kept him off the field in 2021 and he has yet to pitch in the high minors.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, outfielder Robert Neustrom starred at both Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk and made himself a darkhorse contender to be protected.
Plenty of trade acquisitions
Bradish, Smith and Vavra would continue this trend. Of the bevy of players the Orioles acquired at the 2018 trade deadline — a period before Elias’ arrival — Pop is one of two with extensive high-minors experience who haven’t landed on Baltimore’s 40-man roster; the other, catcher Brett Cumberland, is a candidate to be added this year, given the roster currently has no catchers.
The 11 protections under Elias feature five players who joined the organization via trade, though Mattson is the only one who arrived in a deal Elias made. Baltimore moved three veteran pitchers at the 2020 trade deadline, and the returns of two of those deals are expected to be represented in this year’s protected class in the form of Smith and Vavra. The third featured left-handed starter Tommy Milone being dealt to the Atlanta Braves for two players to be named later who became infielders Greg Cullen and AJ Graffanino, both of whom are Rule 5 eligible. Cullen missed all of August with an injury, but when healthy — including his stint in the Arizona Fall League to make up for lost time — he’s shown a knack for getting on base. Graffanino spent most of the year with High-A Aberdeen outside of two one-game stints in Triple-A, with a meager .596 OPS overall.
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Another former player to be named later, infielder Patrick Dorrian, broke out in his first full season with Baltimore after being acquired from the Pittsburgh Pirates for pitcher Yefry Ramírez. He hit 22 home runs with an .836 OPS for Bowie and is now eligible for the Rule 5 draft, too.