The Rule 5 draft is a blip on most teams' radar at the end of MLB's Winter Meetings, but not for the Orioles, who just selected Michael Almanzar from the Red Sox organization and Julio Borbon from the Cubs' AAA affiliate. Not only did the Orioles accomplish nothing of note at this year's gathering, but under the regime of Dan Duquette, the team has shown a huge commitment to its Rule 5 selections (Ryan Flaherty and TJ McFarland) for the last two seasons, keeping both on the 25-man roster for a whole season so that the team could retain their services for years to come. Compare this to the vast majority of Rule 5 picks, who are sent back to where they came from or cut altogether, and the Orioles are pretty anomalous.
Almanzar is the more discussion-worthy pick. In order to retain his services, the Orioles must keep him on the 25-man roster for the entire 2014 season. Unlike Flaherty and McFarland, who could be viewed as second-tier prospects but not that far from the majors, Almanzar looks like more of a project. Entering his age 23 season, Almanzar is a Dominican import whose primary tool is power that's just started to show up over the last two seasons in high-A and AA ball. He sports an unimpressive career line of .250/.302/.373 in his minor league career, but he's stepped that up to a more-respectable .283/.340/.444 over the last two seasons, reflecting improvement that you might expect from a really young kid getting his first experience in full-season professional ball.
The real problem with the Orioles keeping Almanzar around might be how to play him. He's billed as a third baseman, but even the limited defensive metrics available from the minors show a shakiness there (a .921 fielding percentage and 2.64 range factor per nine innings). Scouting reports have also dinged him on his footwork, range and athleticism both there and at first base as well. With Manny Machado entrenched at third, and Ryan Flaherty and Danny Valencia both perfectly capable of backing him up, the Orioles' desire to put a defensive liability at the hot corner might not be there. Almanzar could always back up Chris Davis at first for a day per week, and get in some spot DH duties, but it's hard to see where he fits in the day-to-day major league plan right now. But then again, Flaherty and McFarland had stretches where they barely played, so clearly the Orioles are willing to eat a roster spot if they like what they see.
In the AAA portion of the Rule 5 draft, the Orioles selected Julio Borbon, which is less interesting and less meaningful than the Almanzar selection. Borbon is a speedster who can play all three outfield positions and bats left-handed. Those are the things you need to know about Borbon. He's not an inspiring hitter (career .666 OPS in 863 major-league PAs). But he can make his case to be the fourth outfielder at spring training, and the Orioles can stash him at Norfolk if they need to. It's not a bad pickup, but it probably won't affect the big club in 2014 unless someone gets hurt or suffers from severe ineffectiveness.
The club's handling of Almanzar, given its recent history of commitment to its Rule 5 picks, will be the real storyline to watch. This pick is much more of a reach than Flaherty and McFarland were -- so we'll have to see if the Orioles' scouts saw something that wasn't obvious on paper, something that will let Almanzar take hold at the major league level in 2014.