Since he joined the Orioles' organization in 2011, we've learned than Dan Duquette really likes Rule 5 picks. The O's have selected at least one player in every Rule 5 draft during Duquette's tenure, and many of them are still around: Ryan Flaherty, T.J. McFarland and Jason Garcia were all carried on the MLB roster through a full season, and the team traded for Michael Almanzar after returning him to Boston in 2014.
In December, the Orioles dipped into the Rule 5 pool yet again by selecting outfielder Joey Rickard from the Rays. You probably already know this - Rickard has been getting more and more press lately as his likelihood of making the 25-man roster continues to increase. Let's take a closer look at Rickard's path to Baltimore, and what we can expect from him going forward.
Rickard was drafted by Tampa out of the University of Arizona, in the 9th round of the 2012 draft. He started his professional career that year with Tampa's short-season A affiliate (equivalent to Aberdeen), and had a respectable .279/.371/.372 batting line over 47 games. In 2013 he moved up to A-ball and had a similar year at the plate (.270/.390/.409) while starting nearly every game. You might have noticed the massive difference between his batting average and his on-base percentage in that line - Rickard worked an impressive 78 walks in 559 plate appearances that season. At this point, he was a middling prospect and right along the lines of what you might expect from a ninth round pick.
Rickard moved up to AA for the 2014 season, and it didn't go well. He struggled at the plate (.243/.337/.296) and missed about half the year with an ankle injury after being hit by a pitch in early July. But 2015 was a different story. After starting the year in high-A, he hit himself right back to double-A and then to triple-A Durham by the end of the year. Over all three levels, he hit .321/.427/.447 - the best year of his career by far. He also stole 23 bases and was named the organization's Baserunner of the Year.
It was a bit of a surprise that Tampa wasn't able to find a spot for him on their 40-man roster after such a big year, but they didn't, and the O's snagged him. A good number of Rays fans didn't seem too pleased about this, and fortunately their loss is Baltimore's gain. A Fangraphs article stated the O's might have "hit the jackpot" with the pick, and he was the only player drafted that was listed in the top 100 of their KATOH projection system (a unique prospect projection model based on minor league stats exclusively rather than scouting).
The biggest reason Rickard is likely to make the trip North with the Orioles is his defense. He's been consistently described as a good defensive outfielder who is capable of playing all three positions. That gives him value to the team as not only Adam Jones' backup, but as a fourth outfielder who can come in as a defensive replacement late in games. With the Pedro Alvarez signing likely pushing Mark Trumbo into right field, let's just say a good late-game defensive replacement is probably something the team should have available. Buck Showalter has compared him to David Lough numerous times already this spring, and Rickard could probably be used in a similar 4th outfielder / pinch runner role as Lough (hopefully with less TOOTBLANs and pickoffs). Also, the ongoing struggles of Hyun-Soo Kim in spring training have given the Orioles another reason to keep Rickard around. While I think it's far too early to write off Kim or draw many conclusions from his performance so far, it's certainly wise to have a backup plan.
Another thing Rickard brings to the table is his ability to get on base. His combination of speed and an above-average ability to take a walk have given him a consistently high on-base percentage in his minor league career, and hopefully that will translate to the bigs. One thing Rickard doesn't bring to the table is home run power. He's hit 13 home runs over 1499 minor league plate apperances, and eight of those were in 2013. Even during his breakout 2015 season, his .447 slugging percentage was deceiving - that was primarily from doubles (28) and triples (8) considering he hit only two home runs.
The bottom line on Rickard is that at worst the O's probably have another David Lough. He's fast and he can field, and those skills shouldn't magically go away when he gets promoted to the bigs. Even if he struggles at the plate as badly as Lough did last year, a good defensive replacement and pinch runner will always have a role on this team as it's currently constructed. The best-case scenario is that Rickard becomes what we hoped Lough could've been, or even better - a slap-hitting outfielder who plays good defense and gets on base enough to be an average or above-average hitter. He's done it in the minors, and whether he can do it at this level remains to be seen, but acquiring Rickard is all upside. If it doesn't work out, no big deal. But considering the team essentially got Rickard for free, this could turn out to be a shrewd move for the O's.