At first glance, the Orioles' bevy of minor acquisitions over the past week might seem like dumpster diving. However, the club sees the moves as an instrumental part of building the depth necessary to maintain a competitive club.
On Friday, the Orioles acquired hard-throwing right-hander Miguel Castro from the Colorado Rockies for a player to be named later or cash. Also, a minor league deal with veteran right-hander Edwin Jackson, which was agreed to Tuesday, became official after Jackson passed his club physical Friday. And on Thursday, the team acquired left-hander Andrew Faulkner from the Texas Rangers for future considerations.
In the cases of Castro and Faulkner, the Orioles could offer them what their previous clubs could not: a 40-man roster spot, which are always scarce in the first days of the regular season as fluid rosters start solidifying. Just before or during spring training, the Orioles also acquired pitchers such as right-handers Alec Asher, right-hander Gabriel Ynoa, left-hander Vidal Nuno and left-hander Richard Bleier through trades, and the club's 40-man roster now has 25 spots taken by pitchers.
All six of the aforementioned pitchers still hold minor league options, which give them immense value to the Orioles, who have long used the Triple-A Norfolk and Double-A Bowie rosters to replenish their pitching staff when needed, particularly for a fresh bullpen arm.
But the moves are moreover a signal of the way the Orioles currently operate. They pluck promising but unproven players in need of polishing — pitchers in particular — from other organizations and make them their own projects with patience and player development. It is a way for the Orioles to compensate for some recent slow-developing draft classes and for trading from their minor league inventory to make deadline acquisitions the past several years.
The pitchers won't all pan out. Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette acknowledges that, but said the ones that do are worth the risk.
"I look for players who can help us win, so that's the bar," Duquette said. "We're always looking for players who have the capabilities to help us win. Some of the projects we take on, or invest time and money in, they're not always going to work. But hopefully enough of them will work so we have a good team and have a competitive team. That's really part of the fun of the job actually."
At this time last year, the Orioles made a similar minor move by acquiring left-hander Jayson Aquino from the St. Louis Cardinals for cash. The Orioles liked what they had seen from Aquino, a 2.94 ERA in the minors and a strong sinker-changeup combo, and they thought the then-23-year-old could become a major league contributor if he refined his breaking ball.
Aquino made the steady ascent from Double-A Bowie to a brief stint in the majors last season. And after a strong spring training that opened many eyes — he posted a 1.20 ERA in 15 spring innings —he is a front runner to fill in as the Orioles' fifth starter with right-hander Chris Tillman opening the season on the disabled list.
"He was durable, young and strong," Duquette said about Aquino. "… We knew we had something to work with … so we went to work with him on the breaking pitch and [former Bowie pitching coach and current Orioles bullpen coach] Alan Mills worked with him in Double-A, went to Triple-A, pitched a little bit in relief, came to the big leagues and got his feet wet and now is in a position to help the team this year."
Orioles left-hander Chris Lee, who was acquired from the Houston Astros for international bonus slots in May 2015, and right-hander Jesus Liranzo, who signed as a minor league free agent in 2013, are other prime examples of unheralded acquisitions who have joined the 40-man roster. Both are among the group atop the list of potential call-ups when the team needs pitching help this season.
"I know when we first acquired Liranzo or Aquino or Chris, everyone said, 'Oh, a minor league deal,'" Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "But guess what? Here we sit. There's a long way from where they are now to contributing consistently, but where else are you going to get them from? We haven't been too fortunate yet in some of the other programs. …. We'll see. We've got a big June draft coming up again, a lot of picks early again."
Castro, Faulkner, Aquino, Liranzo and Lee are all 24 years old or younger.
And one marked improvement this Orioles club has over recent ones is an improving stockpile of optionable arms, many of whom have been acquired through minor deals.
"Like I've said before, it's kind of who we are and who we've been," Showalter said. "That's the commodity that is a separator, and when you can acquire it, I think it's really a great. It shows you how much confidence Dan and all of us have in our player development system. I think our instructors down there are the best in baseball. … I feel real comfortable about putting those guys in the environment that I know they're going to be put in.
"They're going to find players that come in here, not that it didn't happen otherwise, but they're going to in some cases be in an environment they haven't been in. So I think they'll be as good as they're capable of being. ... But let's face it, if they didn't have options, we probably wouldn't be doing this."
The club will have patience with its two most recent projects. Castro was a well-regarded Toronto Blue Jays prospect and a part of the deal that sent Troy Tulowitzki to Toronto. But he struggled when fast-tracked from High-A to opening the 2015 season in the majors.
"He went from first grade to fourth grade," Duquette said. "He skipped second and third and he probably needed to go back and finish second and third to be a really good major league pitcher. That's what it looked like to me, but he has excellent talent, good size, a good arm and a good pitcher."
Scouting reports were equally promising on Faulkner, whom Duquette said was a hard thrower with a strong slider.
"They're both young and they bring something to the party that we need," Duquette said. "… We have something to hang our hat on. ... If your scouts like them, then they've identified the skills they have and then your player development people have to finish them off; not finish them off, but get them the experience they need to be able to contribute to the major league team.
"These deals that we make, we always have in mind that they're going to help the big league club. But there's a process where they need to develop the skills and get the seasoning required to help in the big leagues. I mean, there's not a lot of time to develop ballplayers in the American League East. When you come up here, you better be ready to play ball."