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Who will the Orioles protect from the Rule 5 draft?

All teams have until Wednesday to finalize their 40-man rosters ahead of next month’s Rule 5 draft.

Kansas City Royals v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The 2019 edition of the Rule 5 draft does not take place until December 12, but teams have to start making preparations now. This Wednesday is the deadline for clubs to set their 40-man rosters and protect players from next month’s draft. That means that the Orioles have a few tough decisions to make.

As Orioles fans, you are likely familiar with the process of selecting a player in the Rule 5 draft by now. Any player chosen must then remain on that team’s big league roster (now expanded to 26 in 2020) for the entirety of the following season. The O’s have made a selection in the major league phase of every Rule 5 draft since 2006, including shortstop Richie Martin with the top pick last year.

It is likely that general manager Mike Elias will continue that trend next month. The O’s were the second-worst team in MLB behind the Detroit Tigers. So they will get the second overall pick in both the amateur draft and the Rule 5. There should be plenty of interesting talent available.

But first, the O’s have to get their current roster in order. As it stands, the team has 35 players on a squad with room for 40. Theoretically, that gives them room to add five guys, but doing so would preclude them from making any other additions to the 40-man, including a selection in the Rule 5. What’s more likely is that they add three or four youngsters and leave open a spot or two of wiggle room.

Players that need to be protected this season are those that were drafted out of college in 2016 and those that were drafted out of high school or signed as amateur free agents under the age of 18 in 2015. So, you don’t need to worry about D.L. Hall, Grayson Rodriguez or Adley Rutschman just yet. It’s unlikely that any of them will be moved to the 40-man roster anytime soon, and that is perfectly fine. Baseball America has a more in-depth explanation of the ins and outs of this draft process for those interested.

These are the big-name prospects that the Orioles are at risk of losing if they do not protect them from the Rule 5 draft by adding them to the 40-man roster:

  • 1B/OF Ryan Mountcastle (O’s #4 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline)
  • RHP Dean Kremer (#8 prospect)
  • LHP Keegan Akin (#11 prospect)
  • OF Ryan McKenna (#12 prospect)
  • RHP Cody Sedlock (#17 prospect)
  • C Brett Cumberland (#29 prospect)
  • RHP Gray Fenter (#30 prospect)

There are many other eligible players in the O’s system, but they are either so far down on the farm or unlikely to make it through an entire big league season that they are not regarded as a logical selection in the Rule 5 draft at this point.

Mountcastle is coming off of a 2019 season in which he showed promise at the plate. In 127 games with Triple-A Norfolk, he hit .312/.344/.527 with 25 home runs and a 117 wRC+. His issues are well-documented as well. He lacks a position, doesn’t walk enough and strikes out too much. Even still, if the O’s don’t protect him, it’s almost certain that another club would grab him. The 2015 first round pick is likely to be added to the O’s 40-man roster later this week.

Kremer battled through early-season injuries to pitch in 113.2 innings across three levels this past year. All told, he posted a 3.72 ERA and struck out 122 batters while allowing a .258 batting average against. The 23-year-old is nearly big league ready, and could make his MLB debut sometime in 2020. He is another that the O’s need to protect.

It’s a similar story for Akin. The southpaw is a less intriguing prospect than Kremer, but he still struck out 10.5 batters per nine innings over 112.1 innings with Norfolk in 2019. The Orioles are starved for pitching, and Akin represents an option-able arm with some upside. They would do well to protect him as well.

McKenna is in a much more precarious position than he was at this point a year ago. At the end of 2018, the outfielder was one of the hottest prospects in the system. He had dominated the Carolina League (.377/.467/.556 in 67 games) and then posted impressive numbers in the Arizona Fall League. But he has faltered a bit with Double-A Bowie (96 wRC+ in 2018, 104 wRC+ in 2019). The outfield picture is clouded in Baltimore (Austin Hays, Cedric Mullins, Anthony Santander). If the front office removes someone like Dwight Smith Jr. or DJ Stewart than McKenna may find a spot. For now, it looks like the 2015 draft pick could be left out.

Who would have thought Sedlock would even be in consideration here a couple of years ago. The O’s former top draft pick has experienced injury after injury. But he came back with a vengeance in 2019, tossing 95 innings, striking out 100 and holding opponents to a .202 batting average between Frederick and Bowie. That said, he has only thrown 34 innings above Single-A, and would be a risky pick for any team.

Cumberland came to the Orioles as part of the trade that sent Kevin Gausman and Darren O’Day to the Atlanta Braves at the 2018 trade deadline. He bounced back from a disappointing debut with the organization to hit .257/.404/.415 in 60 games this year. The Orioles are said to be interested in adding another catcher to the mix, but they would prefer one with a defensive background. Cumberland likely goes unprotected.

Fenter is an interesting player because he has never pitched above Low-A Delmarva. But he is also coming off of a dominant season in which he struck out 123 batters in 94.1 innings. It would not be without precedent to see a team take a relatively inexperienced player like this and take him in the Rule 5 draft. The Orioles did something similar with Jason Garcia in 2014. That move, of course, did not work out well.

It will be an interesting couple of days in the warehouse. Mountcastle, Kremer and Akin seem to be locks to be protected. McKenna, Sedlock and Fenter could also be make the cut. On top of that, the team could decide to part ways with a veteran or two to make room for the whole group. No matter what happens, anything that occurs surrounding the Rule 5 draft is unlikely to be too consequential, but the hot stove isn’t so hot right now, so at least it gives us something to talk about.