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Two Rule 5 picks could play a huge role for the Orioles

Like it or not, one of these rookies will be an important part of the roster in 2017

Pan Am Games: Baseball-USA vs Dominican Republic
Aneury Tavarez is congratulated after scoring a run in the ninth inning against the United States during the 2015 Pan Am Games
Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

It’s looking like the Orioles are almost done making major additions to their roster, at least as far as the outfield is concerned. On Monday, established hitters Jose Bautista and Michael Saunders agreed to deals elsewhere. And the only other rumors stirring involve sluggers like Mark Trumbo and Chris Carter; two men that should never play the outfield. Which, in all likelihood, means that at least one of the team’s two Rule 5 picks is going to make the Opening Day roster and be asked to contribute in a big way this summer.

New faces in new places

Just to recap, the Birds plucked two outfielders from the Rule 5 draft back in December. Anthony Santander is a 22-year-old switch hitter out of the Indians system. He slashed .290/.368/.494 with 20 home runs and 95 RBI last season, but was only playing at high-A Lynchburg.

Aneury Tavarez is 24 years old and swings left-handed. The O’s nabbed him from the Red Sox farm, where he hit .330/.374/.495 with seven homers, 47 RBI and 20 stolen bases between double-A Portland (106 games) and triple-A Pawtucket (five games) in 2016.

According to MLB Pipeline, the two players have similar ceilings. Santander is listed as Baltimore’s 15th top prospect, whereas Taverez is down at 30th. However, they both earn “overall” grades of 45, which is basically average and slots them in at having the ability of a fringe everyday starter in MLB, but more likely a bench piece.

The Orioles need more than that, if we’re honest. Adam Jones, detractors be damned, is the only outfielder on the roster that you can pencil in for all 162 games and feel confident in doing so. Seth Smith struggles against lefties. Joey Rickard does the same with righties. And Hyun Soo Kim is a questionable fielder. This team needs a clear-cut, starting quality corner outfielder. Neither of these gentlemen would seem to provide that. They can, however, still play an important role.

Keeping them both

It’s going to be almost impossible for the Orioles to hold onto two Rule 5 guys that play the same position. It is a similar situation as to what they had on their hands in 2015, when they selected pitchers Jason Garcia and Logan Verrett. Each of them had a stand out Spring Training, but there was only room for one. Garcia, more than two years younger than Verrett, made the club.

In order to get both Santander and Tavarez on the roster this year, the O’s are going to have to shed weight elsewhere. The obvious candidate is Rickard. He is coming off an injury-shortened rookie season where he had some dizzying highs and disappointing lows. His routes in the outfield need some serious improvement and he could handle seeing right-pitching in a lower pressure environment. Also, he has options. Options are like gold to the Orioles decision-makers.

Picking one

The more realistic outcome will be that these two fight it out in Spring Training with the winner ending up on the Opening Day roster and the other getting shipped back to their original parent club. It’s difficult enough to juggle around and protect one Rule 5 guy, putting two on a roster is just asking for trouble. So, who has the upper hand?

Well, Santander is two-and-a-half years younger and a higher ranked prospect, which may mean he has higher upside. Plus, he has a big frame (6-foot-2, 190 lbs.) that looks like it could pack on some more weight and improve on his already impressive power at the plate. He passes the eye test and should be able to hit pitching at the highest level. Tavarez is a smaller guy (5-foot-9, 175 pounds) and may have already maxed out his body.

But Tavarez is the superior fielder, has more experience in both corner outfield spots and is significantly faster. Plus, he has played at triple-A already, making the jump to MLB much easier. Santander has to transition all the way from high-A, which would mean completely skipping two levels. That doesn’t happen too often.

Who comes out on top

Tavarez has to be the favorite going into the spring. In this case, his experience is a big boost. Less projecting has to be done with him. His offensive skill set would seem to be solid if unimpressive. However, his speed and defense are valuable assets off the bench for Buck Showalter to deploy in place of Kim or Smith in the late innings of a close game.

If the Orioles were a bad team with few aspirations this season, it may make sense to keep them both and bolster the roster for the future. But this is a team that wants to win now. Tavarez is the “win now” option that gives the club a dimension that they are lacking, a slick-fielding speedster. Santander is a power-first guy with less position flexibility, something they have had trouble with in the past.

Whatever the outcome, this will be a fun storyline to follow from Sarasota.