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Orioles need Rule 5 players to perform better than last year’s

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The Orioles yearly gamble on the Rule 5 draft is nearing its next juncture with spring training around the corner.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Boston Red Sox Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

With spring training fast approaching it’s just too easy to overlook the Orioles, who have been virtual wallflowers this offseason, just like the previous. Sure they shipped out a couple players semi-recently in Jonathan Villar and Dylan Bundy while also signing a solid glove in Jose Iglesias. But can moves like this be considered anything but small? Such is the life of a rebuilding Orioles fan.

Yet there is still time for GM Mike Elias and company to make a few more transactions. Then it’s on to the spring training position battles and the annual health watch, just like any other year. One particular area of intrigue of course will be the Rule 5 player competition, which Oriole fans have become all too familiar with.

Last year’s contestant Richie Martin survived the gauntlet, spending the entire year with the Orioles and earning the grand prize of being able to stay in the organization. But at what cost? The majority of 2019 he was beaten down at the plate by major league pitchers. Despite a strong final month when he hit .379/.400/.655, Martin finished the year with a .208/.260/.322 slash line in 283 total at-bats.

Now he seems ticketed for Triple-A in 2020 — barring something unforeseen — to gather up his confidence and prove himself all over again. It’s yet to be seen whether his performance will recover.

Drew Jackson cannot be forgotten here either. He lasted on the Orioles’ 25-man roster until April 10. He spent the rest of his 2019 in Triple-A in the Pacific Coast League, where he hit a combined .209/.300/.319 in 85 games.

The major league phase of the Rule 5 draft last offseason featured 14 players changing clubs, and only three of them stuck the whole year with their new team. Martin was one of those three players and the other two were pitchers.

According to my math, that’s only a 21% success rate. Most of the players who wound up back with their previous club were returned rather quickly. Four Rule 5 draftees were returned in March of last season, three in April and one each in May, June, July and August.

But since the Orioles took a chance on two Rule 5 pitcher lottery tickets for the upcoming season, let’s take a closer look at the two pitchers who made it last year, albeit for other teams.

Right-handed pitcher Elvis Luciano was selected ninth overall by the Blue Jays from the Royals and the 19-year-old’s stay with Toronto was aided by injury. He was on the active roster for a bit under half the season, compiling a 5.35 ERA and 1.78 WHIP in 33.2 innings before being placed on the injured list on June 13. He returned for five games in late September and remains in the Blue Jays organization.

Two Decembers ago, right-handed pitcher Brandon Brennan went from the Rockies to the Mariners with the last selection (13th) in the first round of the Rule 5. On a side note, there were only two rounds of the major league phase and only one selection in the second round.

Like Luciano, Brennan dealt with injury in his inaugural Rule 5 season. Brennan spent two stints on the injured list but still managed to pitch in September. The 28-year-old threw a total of 47.1 innings in 2019 and put up a 4.56 ERA and 1.23 WHIP.

The first Rule 5 contestant for the Orioles this upcoming season is undersized right-hander Brandon Bailey — formerly of the Astros — who checks in at 5 foot 10, 175 pounds. Originally drafted by Oakland in the sixth round of the 2016 amateur draft, Bailey has a career 3.07 ERA in four minor league seasons along with a 1.14 WHIP and well over one strikeout per inning. This past season in Double-A he had 103 strikeouts and 41 walks over 92.2 innings (17 starts, 5 relief appearances) with a 3.30 ERA and 1.22 WHIP.

The second Rule 5 contestant is right-handed reliever Michael Rucker, who came to the Orioles from the Cubs. Splitting his time between Double-A and Triple-A last season, he had a 4.18 ERA and 1.32 WHIP in 79.2 total innings. Like Bailey, he also averages more than a strikeout per inning over the course of his minor league career.

Interestingly though, Rucker made 26 starts just two short years ago despite making 36 out of his 37 appearances last year in relief. We’ll have to wait until spring training and the regular to season to see what role he could potentially have with the Orioles.

Obviously it would be easier to hide a Rule 5 pitcher in the bullpen, but in the Orioles’ particular situation they are in need of starting pitching. So there’s a chance that at least one of these guys gets a shot in the Baltimore rotation for some length of time.

I had an economics teacher in high school who used to say the lottery was a tax on dumb people. But someone has to win right?

The Orioles have a pair of lottery picks this year in the form of two Rule 5 pitchers, and maybe at least one of them can hit it big.

Statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference and MiLB