With an ever-present supply of players with no minor league options remaining and Rule 5 draftees seemingly always on the roster, Dan Duquette and company have turned roster manipulation into an art form over the past six seasons. Heading into Opening Day 2018, it looks to be no different this time around.
While it’s no guarantee, you can usually count on the Orioles allowing optionless players to fully exhaust their chances to make the team on Opening Day. It may sometimes come at the detriment to some more worthy players who happen to be on minor league deals, but that’s life with baseball contracts. It doesn’t make much sense to DFA players that may help you this season unless you’re pretty damn sure that they won’t be missed.
Outside of starters Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman, who are out of options but are locks to make the starting rotation, the Orioles are looking at six additional players in 2018 that must stick on the 25-man roster if the Orioles want to keep them within the organization. Let’s take a look one by one, starting with the Rule 5 guys.
Nestor Cortes Jr.
The soft-tossing lefty was the Orioles first pick in the 2017 Rule 5 draft pick, and immediately began positioning himself towards a spot in the rotation or long relief. After a successful season with a squeaky-clean ERA of only 2.06 across AA and AAA in the Yankees organization, Cortes looked to be one of the Orioles better left-handed pitching options considering the dearth of talent around major league camp.
So far in Spring Training I’d say Cortes has been performing pretty much as advertised. After three and a third scoreless innings yesterday in relief of Miguel Castro, Cortes has lowered his Spring Training ERA down to 4.35.
It hasn’t always been as easy as the minor leagues for Cortes, but I think that was to be expected. As a crafty pitcher by trade, he certainly can’t get by in the majors when his stuff isn’t “on.” However, he has proven to be able to change deliveries and miss bats with some effectiveness. Going forward, he looks best suited to make the Opening Day roster in long relief, especially as a left-hander following a rotation of entirely righties.
The Orioles selected Araujo in the second round of the Rule 5 draft back in December despite the 24-year-old having pitched only two innings above the Single A level. While he may not have the requisite experience normally asked of major league players, Araujo has shown flashes of a seriously impressive arm. It’s been easy to see why the Orioles front office identified him early on. Buck had this to say last Monday:
“When you see a good hitter like (Carlos) Santana who does not swing at balls swing at a changeup that starts in the zone and leaves the zone, those are things you’re looking at... He’s got a chance to be pretty good. I like him. He looks the part. He’s a good kid.”
High praise from the skipper, but certainly not out of no where if you watched the Orioles on MASN last Sunday. Araujo pitched a scoreless inning with two strikeouts and was seriously impressive. He has some serious arm talent and his stuff certainly plays in the major leagues.
Depending how things shake out for the remainder of Spring Training, Araujo is a pitcher to keep an eye on. With other impressive arms such as Joely Rodriguez and Donnie Hart sitting with minor league contracts and options remaining, respectively, the Orioles may try to sneak Araujo onto the Opening Day roster and at least see how long his arm can hold up in the big leagues. It would limit the roster flexibility in the bullpen that Dan Duquette loves so much, but so far Araujo’s arm has looked to be worth the risk.
Jose Mesa Jr
The aptly-named son of former big leaguer Jose Mesa was the only player drafted in the third round of the Rule 5 draft, because Dan Duquette just can’t help himself sometimes. He’s certainly had success at the minor league level, so you can’t really get that mad at Duquette for taking a flyer. Last year between high-A and AA, Mesa pitched to an ERA of only 1.93 over 84 innings. But, Mesa Jr hasn’t been able to match that kind of performance this spring thus far.
Mesa does have three wins in Spring Training, but keep in mind the Orioles offense has also been facing mostly minor league pitching towards the end of games when he’s on the mound. Despite the 3-1 record and the two scoreless innings he tossed against the Twins last Tuesday, Mesa is still sitting with a spring ERA of 7.94.
With the Orioles originally saying that they were looking at Mesa as a possible starter, it looks like his time in an Orioles uniform may be short-lived. I’d expect to see Mesa sent back to New York at the end of camp unless an injury happens to pop up to temporarily prolong his stay.
In comparison to the other players listed here, Santander is a special case because he only has to last 45 days on the Major League roster in 2018 before completing his requirements stemming from the 2016 Rule 5 draft. As Joe Wedra wrote about yesterday, so far so good for Santander. After dominating his rehab stint at Bowie last season, the switch-hitting outfielder has continued to rake against Spring Training pitching.
The fans certainly aren’t the only ones who have noticed. Check out these compliments he received from Buck Showalter last Sunday:
“It’s been a real highlight for me is his defensive progress... And really getting a chance to know him a little bit. He was hurt all spring. Just really get a lot of reps on him on both sides of the ball, not just DHing. It’s been fun watching him play defense and really work at it... He took everything that we said to him at heart, that he needed to work on. He’s gotten after it.”
Barring any injury, knock on wood, Santander will be on the Opening Day roster for the Orioles. The only question left at this point seems to be whether or not he will be playing in the field on March 29th.
Wright’s career has been a tumultuous one to this point for the Orioles, and despite two stellar outings to start his career back in 2015, he now finds himself out of options. It may not seem like it was three seasons ago since he tossed those 14 straight scoreless innings, but here we are. Like they always say, time flies when you’re watching Orioles starters fail to make it through five innings. Okay, maybe no one has ever said that.
So far in Spring Training, it’s looking like the Orioles are giving Wright every chance possible to claim the remaining fifth spot in the Orioles’ rotation. And to this point, he’s taken advantage, with a spring ERA of 3.60 with a WHIP of 0.90. Through 10 innings, Wright has shown some improved command, and has even added a cutter into his repertoire for use against lefties.
Even if the Orioles happen to go out and make every fan’s dream come true by signing Alex Cobb, I’d still expect to see Wright in the bullpen to start the year. His plus velocity plays up out of the pen and it may suit him better to only have to work one time through the order. It just doesn’t seem like the Orioles are ready to give up on him just yet.
Mike Wright has dominated in the minors over the last three seasons for Norfolk, pitching to an ERA of 3.09 over 244.2 innings. He has nothing left to prove down there and everybody in the organization knows it, Wright included. It’s put up or shut up time for the now 28-year-old. It looks like the Orioles are ready to ride with him one last time, at least to begin the year.
Acquired for cash considerations from the New York Mets after in February 2017, Ynoa was a classic Duquette signing at the time. He showed some flashes over three starts in 2016, but still finished the year with an ERA of 6.38 for the Mets. The 24-year-old has shown spurts, such as his eight innings of one-run ball against the Rays last September on only 94 pitches, but he hasn’t been able to sustain that success pitching for the Birds in Baltimore. Even in AAA last season, Ynoa pitched to an unsightly ERA of 5.25.
It may be painful for Ynoa, but luckily for the Orioles, they don’t have to make any decisions on him just yet. Ynoa has been dealing with shin splints as of late and it’s looking like the righty will start the season on the DL. Based on his arm talent alone, I would expect the Orioles to prolong his impeding rehab stint in the minors as long as possible in hope that a situation arises in which he can be kept on the team.
While Gabriel Ynoa won’t be pitching for the remainder of Spring Training, keep an eye on all of these guys as the O’s wind down their time in Sarasota. If I had to guess, we will be seeing most of them heading north with the club in a two weeks, for better or for worse.