With a work stoppage looming in Major League Baseball come early December, the most active the rebuilding Orioles might get for a long time could be this week’s deadline to add players to their 40-man roster and prevent them from being selected in the Rule 5 draft, which is scheduled for December’s Winter Meetings.
Players who aren’t on a team’s 40-man roster after either four years for older draftees or five years for teenage signees are eligible to be plucked from one organization by another, so long as the drafting team keeps that player on their active 26-man roster for the entire season.
Orioles reliever Tyler Wells came into the organization this way, as did shortstop Richie Martin, outfielder Anthony Santander, plus past contributors including Joey Rickard and Ryan Flaherty. Last year’s Rule 5 draft featured something of a rarity for the Orioles in which they lost right-handers Zach Pop and Gray Fenter to the Miami Marlins and Chicago Cubs, respectively, after opting not to protect them.
Pop was coming off Tommy John elbow reconstruction and stuck with the Marlins all year with a 4.12 ERA in 50 appearances, while Fenter didn’t last through spring training before the Cubs returned him. He spent 2021 at Double-A Bowie but was far from the dominant pitcher he was at Low-A Delmarva in 2019. Fenter is now a minor league free agent.
This week, the Orioles will have to decide which players on their farm they want to protect and which players they’ll risk losing.
Here’s a breakdown of the notable eligible players and whether they’ll be on the Orioles’ 40-man roster, which currently has eight open spots, by the end of the week:
Left-hander DL Hall, the Orioles’ 2017 first-round pick, is one of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball. He won’t be the only player they add, but he’s in a class of his own where the Orioles are concerned.
Had Hall not injured his elbow after seven dominant starts at Double-A Bowie this year, he’d be in the stratosphere of his teammate Grayson Rodriguez at the very top of the group of young arms in the game. As it stands, he still has the potential to be a dynamic big-league arm with a rare fastball that touches 100 mph and plenty of swing-and-miss secondary pitches.
Hall was shut down with what was determined to be a stress reaction in his elbow, and the Orioles have been mum on how his recovery is going. No matter where he is on his way back to the mound, Hall will be on the 40-man roster imminently.
The near-sure things
Three centerpieces of some of the Orioles’ most significant trades are almost assured to be added as well in right-hander Kyle Bradish, left-hander Kevin Smith and infielder Terrin Vavra.
Bradish, who is their third-best pitching prospect behind Rodriguez and Hall, was the top arm acquired in the December 2019 trade of Dylan Bundy to the Los Angeles Angels and has impressed at every stop since. He needed just three starts at Bowie before moving up to Norfolk, and while he struggled some early in Triple-A the Orioles are happy with how he ended the season and got back to attacking hitters.
Smith, too, wasn’t long for Bowie but found things difficult at the higher level in his first full season with the Orioles after coming over in the August 2020 trade for Miguel Castro with the New York Mets. As the season progressed, he lost his control and threw an alarmingly low number of pitches in the strike zone. Still, his pair of fastballs and potential plus breaking ball from the left side makes him the type of player a pitching-starved organization will need to protect.
Vavra arrived in August 2020 from the Colorado Rockies in the Mychal Givens trade. A speedy up-the-middle player who spent time at second base and center field at Double-A Bowie, Vavra was limited by a back injury that cut his season in half but showed impressive on-base capabilities and a table-setter profile that fits well with what the Orioles are looking for.
On merits, all three have the types of profiles that could be attractive to the right team if left available for the Rule 5 draft. On a practical level, the perception of the top pieces in any of these trades not being worthy of a roster spot for a team with so many available would be a terrible one. On that alone, all three should be added when the time comes.
The familiar names
With college players from the 2018 draft being eligible for the first time, the Orioles have some relatively high-profile draftees from the last class of the Dan Duquette regime who they could lose.
Most intriguing of the group is Blaine Knight, the $1 million pitcher from Arkansas they drafted in the third round in 2018. Knight’s command has come and gone as he’s climbed the professional ladder and he had a lower strikeout rate than walk rate when he got to Triple-A Norfolk this year. His pitch data might be attractive to other clubs, though, and that’s probably a factor the Orioles are taking into consideration as they decide on him.
Their second pick that year, shortstop Cadyn Grenier, also reached Triple-A this year. He’s always been a glove-first player with true abilities up the middle but struggled to make much offensive impact, save for a period midseason this year when he tweaked his swing and got hot in June. A team selecting Grenier would likely be doing so in the same way the Orioles took Martin when they needed a steady shortstop for 2019, though it’s unclear if such a team exists or if the Orioles would use a roster spot to prevent that from happening.
Other big names eligible for the draft include 2016 first-round pick Cody Sedlock, who has been eligible the last two years but hasn’t been picked, had a 4.55 ERA and a 1.47 WHIP while striking out 100 in 93 innings between Bowie and Norfolk this year. The Orioles not protecting him after his 2019 resurgence means they may not at this point, either.
The wild cards
Speaking of swing changes that took hold midseason and changed a player’s outlook, outfielder Robert Neustrom put the work in to start hitting for more power at Bowie and ended up with 50 extra-base hits. The Orioles aren’t hard-pressed for outfielders in the present or future, but if the underlying data behind Neustrom’s production is the kind that will make him attractive to other teams, ensuring Neustrom remains in the fold as DJ Stewart insurance isn’t the worst idea.
The Orioles also don’t have any catchers on their roster, so if they want to change that, they could add Brett Cumberland. Another hitter whose name jumps out is infielder Greg Cullen, another high on-base trade acquisition who is having a good spell in the Arizona Fall League. Infielder Pat Dorrian, who had a strong year at Bowie, is eligible as well. Adam Hall is eligible, too, but struggled at High-A Aberdeen this year.
On the pitching side, a few warrant real consideration for their upside. Chief among them is right-hander Félix Bautista, a massive 26-year-old reliever who has harnessed his triple-digit fastball to develop passable command as he got to Triple-A Norfolk this year. He struck out 77 in 46 ⅓ innings with a 1.07 WHIP, and based on the stuff and performance would likely be picked if the Orioles don’t add him to the roster this week.
Another high-minors reliever who got to Triple-A this year is left-hander Nick Vespi, whose fastball/slider combo has impressed in relief when he’s healthy and earned him a spot in the Arizona Fall League Fall Stars game.
There could be a discussion about 24-year-old Dominican right-hander Ofelky Peralta, who also got into the high minors this year but still doesn’t have the consistency to warrant a major league role just yet.
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Right-hander Brenan Hanifee, 23, missed all of 2021 with Tommy John but is someone the team is still very high on. Coming back from surgery could be enough to dissuade teams from selecting a player who scouts have always been high on, but the Orioles could make that decision moot by adding him.