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Unlike years past, the Orioles’ gamble with Rule 5 players this spring makes sense

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The Orioles have three Rule 5 players in camp this year vying to make the team, and a few former ones too.

Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

The Orioles may have a new brain trust running the team this season, but one thing has stayed the same as from years past — a reliance on the Rule 5 draft to mine undervalued players. Joey Rickard, Anthony Santander and Pedro Araujo are holdovers from the previous regime who have been joined this spring by Richie Martin and Drew Jackson.

But there is a big difference this year — the Orioles are in rebuild mode and focused on improving the talent base at all levels in lieu of wins. That is the type of team that should be giving looks to multiple Rule 5 players, as opposed to a team expecting to compete.

That’s also why it was such a head-scratcher last year when Dan Duquette decided to keep three Rule 5 guys on the Opening Day roster. Araujo was wildly inconsistent out of the bullpen and eventually placed on the disabled list. Santander hit .198 in 101 at-bats before losing Rule 5 status and being optioned to the minors. And pitcher Nestor Cortes Jr. was so bad that the O’s sent him back to his original team, the New York Yankees.

This spring, the Orioles’ current and former Rule 5 players are getting a lot of opportunities. At least the position players, that is. This past December’s Rule 5 picks — Richie Martin and Drew Jackson — are tied for the fourth most at-bats (along with Chris Bostick) in camp so far with 20 apiece.

Former Rule 5 outfielders Rickard and Santander aren’t far behind, with 18 at-bats apiece through Wednesday. Reliever Pedro Araujo, who has only pitched 2.1 innings this spring, will have to serve 17 days on the major league roster before he loses his Rule 5 status and can be sent to the minors.

As chronicled recently by Mark Brown, all the aforementioned players stand a solid chance of cracking the opening day roster, with the exception being Santander. He seems like the most likely odd man out.

Anthony Santander came to the Orioles via the Cleveland Indians in December 2016 and brought with him a sweet switch-hitting swing reminiscent of Victor Martinez. In 131 major league at-bats the last two years combined, Santander hit .214/.252/.313 with one home run, 8 RBI and one stolen base.

In parts of seven minor league seasons, he has a .271/.337/.454 batting line. Santander is having an impressive spring early on, hitting .444/.500/1.000 with two home runs and five RBI through Wednesday’s games. The switch-hitting outfielder is currently 24 years old.

Another outfielder, Joey Rickard, has somehow stuck around the outfield picture for years now despite being astonishingly mediocre since the O’s took him from the Tampa Bay Rays in December 2015. From 2016-2018, Rickard owns a .252/.298/.376 slash line in the majors, as opposed to a .279/.388/.394 line in parts of six minor league seasons. He will turn 28 this May. So far this spring, the right-handed hitting outfielder is batting .333/.400/.556 with two RBI and one stolen base.

On the other side of the ball, right-handed relief pitcher Pedro Araujo doesn’t throw heat. Brooks Baseball notes that his fastball tops out in the low 90s, so he relies more on his change-up and slider while also employing a sinker. The Orioles took him from the Cubs last December and watched him pitch 28 innings with a 7.70 ERA and 1.67 WHIP before placing him on the disabled list in June with a right elbow sprain, according to MLB.com.

In his minor league career, spread across seven seasons, Araujo has a 2.63 ERA and 1.09 WHIP in 145 games (22 starts). The 25-year-old has only pitched 2.1 innings this spring, allowing four hits, one walk and four strikeouts with a 3.86 ERA and 2.14 WHIP.

Which brings us to the newest Rule 5 members of spring training. Richie Martin is a slick fielding shortstop from the Oakland Athletics who had a breakout season with the bat at Double-A last year, hitting .300/.368/.439 with six home runs, 42 RBI and 25 stolen bases. In 20 spring at-bats with the O’s, the 24-year-old owns a .450/.500/.650 batting line with a pair of steals.

Drew Jackson is a versatile fielder who was selected by the Philadelphia Phillies in the Rule 5 Draft last December and then traded to the O’s. He still maintains his Rule 5 player status. The 25-year-old is hitting well so far in the Grapefruit League (.350/.391/.400) after putting up a .269/.360/.399 batting line across four minor league seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

While looking at a team’s approach to the Rule 5 Draft and the number of those players they keep around into the regular season, context is key. A team building toward the future, like Baltimore, can afford to go through the growing pains of keeping such players for a full year.

Unlike the past couple of years, it would not be a big surprise to see the Orioles keep more than one, or maybe even more than two, Rule 5 players on the Opening Day roster. It would actually be more prudent than ever.