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The Orioles’ obsession with the Rule 5 draft still hasn’t paid off

For a long time now, the Orioles have been heavy players in the Rule 5 draft. But has it been worth it?

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Oakland Athletics D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports

Why are the Orioles always so involved with the Rule 5 draft? And more importantly, what do they have to show for it recently? Let’s take a look.

First, a little background on the Rule 5 draft: it’s held at the MLB Winter Meetings in December every year, and teams can select players from each other’s minor league farm systems by inverse order of the previous year’s standings.

In order for a player to be eligible for the Rule 5 draft, they cannot be on their original team’s 40 man roster, and they must have spent four or five years in the minors, depending on whether they were signed after or before the age of 19.

For players languishing in the minors, the Rule 5 draft is a chance at stardom. It’s also an opportunity for some team to find the proverbial diamond in the rough. The majority of Rule 5 players become part time role players or wash out, but there are some notable exceptions.

These include not only Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente and Grover Cleveland Alexander, but also former All-Stars Dan Uggla, Josh Hamilton, Johan Santana and Jose Bautista. It’s worth noting, however, that the rules have changed since most of those players were Rule 5 picks, and it’s now less common to find a real diamond in the rough.

If only the Orioles had held onto Bautista after selecting him in the 2003 Rule 5 draft…

As stated by Rich Dubroff in a piece for Pressbox, the “Orioles have been the most aggressive team in Major League Baseball in drafting and keeping Rule 5 draft picks. Since 2012, five of the seven Rule 5 draftees have played for the Orioles…”

As Buck Showalter said in a Baltimore Sun Winter Meetings video, referring to the Rule 5 draft: “it’s one of the best bargains in sports…and you better take advantage of it.” Buck also emphasizes the relatively low cost to invest in a Rule 5 draftee, especially compared to the type of free agent contracts that are given out these days.

All things considered, a team pays about $645,000 for a Rule 5 player, which includes the $100,000 drafting fee paid to the team giving up the prospect, and the $545,000 rookie minimum paid to the player in his first season in the bigs.

So you can see why the Orioles are drawn to this exercise. Creativity is key when competing against big market teams like the Yankees and Red Sox. The Orioles don’t loosen the purse strings much in free agency, they hardly spend their own international signing money and they put a lot of stock in the Rule 5 draft. They place a great deal of importance on this undervalued market with the chance to yield considerable dividends. I just don’t see the results.

The Orioles went all out this past winter in the Rule 5 draft, selecting three pitchers. And that doesn’t even include Anthony Santander, the Rule 5 outfielder from two winters ago who, at the start of this season, still had to spend 44 days in the majors or be offered back to the Indians. Last year he spent the majority of the season on the disabled list.

That’s another stipulation of the Rule 5 draft; a player must remain on the drafting team’s 25 man roster all season, unless they befall an injury and end up on the disabled list for an extended period, in which case they must be active for a minimum 90 days.

Santander started last season on the DL with a shoulder injury and only appeared in 13 games over a span of 46 days late in the season. If the player, like Santander, doesn’t meet his time requirement because of injury in year one, it carries over into the beginning of the next season.

Of the three pitchers drafted by the Orioles in the December 2017 Rule 5 draft, only one remains on the roster. Right-hander Jose Mesa Jr. was offered back to his original team, the Yankees, all the way back in spring training. Left-hander Nestor Cortes Jr. only appeared in four major league games before getting sent back to the Yankees as well. In those four games covering 4.2 innings, Cortes had a 7.71 ERA with a 3.00 WHIP, including a three to four strikeout-to-walk ratio and two home runs allowed.

The last Rule 5 pitcher standing, righty Pedro Araujo, has a 6.20 ERA in 20.1 innings with a 1.328 WHIP. In the last seven days, Araujo has an 11.57 ERA and 1.93 WHIP, including seven hits, six earned runs, two walks and five strikeouts in 4.2 innings.

In a similar case, Anthony Santander is not faring much better this year. After a torrid spring training, Santander is batting just .204/.253/.312 with a -0.3 WAR so far this season. Santander’s Rule 5 eligibility deadline is fast approaching, and the Orioles will have to make a decision on May 12 whether it’s worthwhile to keep him in the big leagues or decide that his development is better served continuing in the minors.

Most teams heavily invested in the Rule 5 draft tend to be on the downside of competitiveness. That’s why bad teams are more willing to carry the burden of an underperforming Rule 5 player on their roster all year, in the hopes of better returns in subsequent years.

The Orioles started the year with such promise, and expectations were understandably high after this team’s overall success the past several years. It is still early in the season, and these players still have a chance to turn their seasons around. But it was a big risk carrying so many Rule 5 players, and as they drop like flies, it is fair to wonder if carrying them at all in the first place was the right choice.