Spring training has been a bummer for Orioles fans. Seemingly every time you turn around, there's another poor starting pitching performance, and if not that, then it's another minor (so they say) injury to a significant player like Matt Wieters or Kevin Gausman. It's enough to make you want to bury your head in the sand.
One player who has chugged along unchecked is Rule 5 pick Joey Rickard. Plucked from the Rays, the 24-year-old outfielder has seemingly been everywhere this spring training. The Orioles have played 27 games in the Grapefruit League season and Rickard has appeared in 23 of them, notching more plate appearances than any other Oriole in March.
Rickard has made the most of the opportunity, batting .396/.475/.566 over those games. He's also stolen five bases, and in the field he has proved to be a good defender, making use of his speed and his arm to help out O's pitchers - who certainly have needed the help this spring.
The hype train for Rickard is building up speed. On the sporadic games that have been covered with the regular O's radio or TV broadcasters, they are raving about him, and since he's doing something good seemingly every day, the beat corps can't seem to stop writing about him.
In the pages of today's Baltimore Sun is an article by Eduardo Encina which notes that Rickard's spring performance has him under consideration to be the team's starting left fielder, ahead of Hyun Soo Kim, who has struggled.
Another article from last week by new Sun beat writer Jon Meoli shows him apparently dazzled by Rickard hitting a pinch-hit walkoff against Eric O'Flaherty, a 31-year-old lefty who had an 8.10 ERA in 41 games last season.
All of this stuff is great. You'd rather see a guy have Rickard's spring than Kim's spring. But pump the brakes already! Don't get carried away by results against inferior spring competition and think he's a certainty as the every day answer for left field.
The journey to being a Rule 5 pick
Although individual teams and the league as a whole have some blind spots here and there, baseball teams aren't run by idiots. Not even the bad ones are. While Rickard may have ended up as available in the Rule 5 draft because the Rays roster is loaded with outfielders already, if the Rays knew they had an every day guy already there, they would have surely placed him on the 40-man roster to protect him, regardless of who they already have.
Similarly, if the fourteen teams who picked before the Orioles in the Rule 5 draft knew Rickard was a certain big leaguer, they'd have tapped him, too. Seven teams didn't even pick a player at all.
There are late-blooming baseball players, but as a general rule, if a guy is opening up his age 24 season playing in the High-A Florida League, as Rickard did last season, he's not on a certain big league trajectory. If any doofus can look at the guy and see an MLBer, he'll be an MLBer when he's 24, no matter how deep a certain team's system may be with outfielders.
Rickard did earn himself two mid-season promotions, spending a bit more than half of the season with the Double-A Montgomery Biscuits before finishing the season in Triple-A with the Durham Bulls.
Across these three levels, Rickard combined to bat .321/.427/.447. At that last stop in Durham, he batted .360/.437/.472 in 29 games, the best of his numbers yet. But he only hit two home runs in 117 games over the whole season. Power is not his game.
Power doesn't have to be Rickard's game. Rickard could be valuable to the Orioles solely as an eighth inning defensive replacement or pinch runner for Mark Trumbo or whoever is in left field that day. As someone capable of handling center field, he can be trusted out there for a day every so often when Adam Jones is getting a rest day or a DH day. These are good things. They don't make him a regular.
The mirage of spring training statistics
There are all kinds of reasons not to get bent out of shape about spring statistics, not least of which is the fact that when the calendar turns to April, it's all erased. Another big one is the quality of competition.
Baseball Reference keeps tabs of competition quality for each player in spring training. Rickard's opponent quality, through Friday's games, was measured at 7.5 - that is, somewhere about halfway between Double-A and Triple-A. That's markedly lower than most of the expected Orioles regulars, all of whom have OppQual numbers in the 8s, meaning Triple-A quality competition or better.
To Rickard's credit, he's made the most of these opportunities. A guy can only play against the people who are put in front of him. And Rickard's spring numbers are far better than many Orioles, even surefire stars like Manny Machado. Rickard has done well while people like Chris Davis and Wieters have mostly stunk in their game action.
More power to him. This is not meant to take anything away from what he's achieved. It's just important to keep in mind that what Rickard has achieved in March does not necessarily mean he is the sure choice for a regular Orioles left fielder.
The pitchers against whom he's succeeded in spring as a group bear little resemblance to what he'll face every day in the big leagues, where every team and every pitching staff and catcher will be fully prepped with his general and recent tendencies for strengths and weaknesses.
Rickard's shown a tendency to work some walks, which is good, but big league pitchers throw more, and nastier, strikes than anything he's seen before. You might forget it if you watch the Orioles rotation for too long, but big league pitchers get to the big leagues in part because their command is better than guys in the minors.
Every pitcher knows how he's going to pitch to a guy who can't credibly threaten him with power. That's what Rickard would face every day as a regular. It's a long way from Double-A.
Rickard may still earn the LF job and that's OK
When all is said and done, Rickard might still be the best left field option. If he is, great! Best of luck to him. Sometimes the scouting-industrial complex is wrong about what players can offer as major leaguers. The computer formulas can be wrong too. Neither of their judgments are ironclad and unassailable.
The other options are presently not overwhelming or exciting and Rickard wouldn't have to do much to be better than the .640 OPS that O's left fielders collectively hit last year ... and he'd be a better defender than that underwhelming lot even if he hit as poorly as they did, so he'd still offer more to the team.
Even if Rickard isn't starting left fielder-worthy, he can bring value to the Orioles. That's why they picked him in the Rule 5 draft in the first place. It's not likely that they viewed him as a starter when they took him. They just wanted a speedy defensive replacement/pinch runner who's better than David Lough. They've surely found that in Rickard.
The important thing is not to take Rickard's spring performance as meaning the left field job should be, or is, settled and closed. None of it counts yet. Until it does, don't get carried away by the hype.