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Orioles’ Rule 5 draft protections could shape roster for rest of offseason

Holding eight open spots on their 40-man roster is an enviable position for the Orioles to be in as teams are required by Friday to protect their eligible players from selection in next month’s Rule 5 draft.

It’s good news for a handful of the Orioles’ most promising prospects who will be one step closer to making the big leagues when they’re added to the roster, but the benefit goes deeper than that.

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Just because the Orioles have eight spots doesn’t mean they’ll be adding eight prospects, and not just because left-handers DL Hall and Kevin Smith, right-hander Kyle Bradish and infielder Terrin Vavra are near-locks. There’s room for maybe one more, but the Orioles will want to keep roster spots open for a variety of reasons.

Friday’s deadline is chief among them. More than half the league — 19 teams — have four or fewer spots available for protections Friday. Five teams — including the talent-rich New York Yankees — have full rosters, while other clubs with strong prospect bases that have tight rosters include the San Diego Padres (39 players), Los Angeles Dodgers (38) and Tampa Bay Rays (37).

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Given the Orioles have the first pick in the Rule 5 draft — if there isn’t a work stoppage and it happens as scheduled at the end of next month’s winter meetings — the Orioles will hope there are some interesting prospects available.

They’d be thrilled if there’s a match at a position of short-term need like they got in 2018 with shortstop Richie Martin. The Rays have three catchers on their roster and need to protect two highly-rated prospects at that position, so they’ll be monitoring that closely.

But if the Rays clear a roster spot or two to protect everyone they want to, they’ll have to subject a player to waivers, and the Orioles will be able to pounce. That’s where the roster flexibility they’ve maintained will be vital to carry beyond Friday.

With the first spot in the waiver claim order this offseason, the Orioles will be checking on every player dropped off a roster. There’s a chance a good team might have to expose a useful player to the Orioles well before the Rule 5 draft starts, and they can take advantage of their open spots that way.

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Their additions Friday could be made with roster flexibility in mind. The Orioles have far fewer fungible (to the rest of the league) relievers on the roster than usual — and they’ve already lost three this offseason trying to pass them through waivers in Eric Hanhold (Pittsburgh Pirates), Zach Burdi (Arizona Diamondbacks) and Hunter Harvey (San Francisco Giants). But they can always try and sneak another through to create a roster spot.

Between now and the Rule 5 draft, they can also clear spots through releases and non-tenders (Renato Núñez and Hanser Alberto in 2020) or arbitration-deadline trades (Jonathan Villar and Dylan Bundy in 2019).

So if the Orioles want to maintain at least two spots on their roster for the Rule 5 draft, they’ll need to be mindful of what could be an active few weeks of transactions before a potential offseason shutdown. If free agents sign at the pace they have been this week, there will be waiver claims to be made by the team holding the first spot.

The first of those might be days away, with someone joining reliever Bryan Baker on the Orioles’ incoming transaction log before their first true additions come, naturally, in next month’s Rule 5 draft.

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