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The Orioles’ first offseason task: Clearing room on the 40-man roster for prospects

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Before setting the 40-man roster to protect players from the Rule 5 draft by Nov. 20, the Orioles will have to make some room.

Boston Red Sox v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

The 2020 MLB season has reached its end. Despite all of the obstacles, and one last dramatic gasp from the pandemic even during the clinching Game 6 of the World Series, teams played 60 games, played a peculiar expanded postseason, and crowned a winner. For baseball front offices, the focus can now turn to building their team the way they want it to be built for 2021.

One of the earlier roster concerns that the Orioles are going to have to face within a month is which of the Rule 5 draft-eligible prospects they want to add to the 40-man roster to protect from this year’s edition of that draft. They enter the offseason with a 40-man roster that’s already essentially full, so some pruning work will have to be done to prepare the ground for the next wave of near-MLB prospects.

Between now and next Friday, Camden Chat writers will be making the case for or against seven of the Orioles Rule 5 draft-eligible prospects. Players eligible for the draft this year are, generally, international amateur signings from 2015, high school players picked in the 2016 amateur draft and college players chosen in the 2017 draft.

The big names we’ll be looking at are: Yusniel Diaz, Michael Baumann, Rylan Bannon, Zach Pop, Zac Lowther, Alexander Wells, and Isaac Mattson. Three of those guys were acquired in the Manny Machado trade. Two were drafted by the O’s in 2017, and Wells was an O’s international signing. Mattson, picked up in the Dylan Bundy trade, is the only one who’s been added to the organization during Mike Elias’s tenure. They must be on the 40-man roster by November 20 to be protected from the coming Rule 5 draft.

It seems like at least four of these players are going to be added, meaning that at least four current 40-man roster players must be dropped. The Orioles will have to clear further room if they want to make a selection of their own in the Rule 5 draft, or in order to make any waiver claims through the winter, or even, gasp, to sign a free agent to a major league contract.

Last year’s Rule 5 draft saw the Orioles choose two players, although they ended up returning them to their original clubs before spring training was halted by the pandemic.

Pending free agents

Now that the World Series is over, players who are eligible to become free agents hit the market in five days. The Orioles only have two players in this category this year. Veteran lefty Wade LeBlanc, who pitched six games before suffering a season-ending injury, will become a free agent when his 2020 contract expires. So will third catcher Bryan Holaday, as the 33-year-old only had a contract covering 2020.

2021 contract option

Shortstop Jose Iglesias that allows the Orioles to exercise an option to keep Iglesias for 2021 with a $3.5 million salary. This will also have to be done within five days now that the World Series is over. Different beat writers have made different statements about whether the O’s might go pathetically cheap and dump Iglesias. The Athletic’s Dan Connolly wrote about the topic this morning as if it’s still in question. Two weeks ago, MASN’s Roch Kubatko said the O’s are exercising Iglesias’s option “unless there’s a monumental, earth-shattering shift in organizational thinking.”

Arbitration-eligible players

The Orioles have six arbitration-eligible players, any one of whom the team could decline to tender a 2021 contract, making that player a free agent who is no longer on the roster. However, those decisions probably won’t be a factor in making space on the 40-man roster before the Rule 5 draft, because the tender deadline is December 2.

The players are: Hanser Alberto, Shawn Armstrong, Trey Mancini, Renato Nunez, Anthony Santander, Pedro Severino

Of these players, only Mancini projects for a salary of more than $3 million, according to MLBTR’s arbitration projections. This does not mean the O’s will keep them all. If Elias wants to sweep an unsentimental scythe through this group of players, Nunez seems like one non-tender option if only because the Orioles have so many other first base/designated hitter-type players.

Alberto is a fun personality on the team, but he was a below-average hitter in 2020. So was Severino, and although Rio Ruiz isn’t arbitration-eligible, he was also a below-average hitter overall in the shortened season.

Trades

The Orioles could trade one of the above guys or anyone else on the roster if they find a deal they like. I don’t expect this to happen before the deadline to protect players from the Rule 5 draft.

Last year’s offseason trades of Jonathan Villar and Dylan Bundy happened on December 2 and December 4, respectively. That was after the date to protect players, which was also November 20 last year. The deals did still create space before the Rule 5 draft, which took place last December 12. Perhaps Elias could take a similar approach heading into this hot stove season.

Fringe players who don’t get another chance

In the last week of the regular season, the Orioles dropped two control-challenged relievers from the 40-man roster: Cody Carroll and Evan Phillips. If they are going to clear some space for this year’s crop of Rule 5-eligible prospects, it’s probably going to come from removing some of the players who you might have already forgotten were in the organization, or players you wish were already gone.

Thomas Eshelman - Posted an acceptable 3.89 ERA, but a FIP of 5.76 suggests he’s not going to meaningfully contribute to a better Orioles near future. Eshelman has already been DFA’d by the Orioles following last season.

David Hess - Pitched only three games for the 2020 Orioles, and none after August 13. This does not strike me as a sign that Elias is excited about this Duquette-era holdover.

Branden Kline - A nice story since he’s a Marylander on the Orioles. He wasn’t good in 2019 and was outrighted from the roster once in 2020 before being brought back in the final week of the season. He’s 29. That’s old to keep hoping for improvement from a player.

Kohl Stewart - Signed over the past offseason as a possible rotation option, the 26-year-old former #4 overall pick opted out of participating in the 2020 season due to being diabetic, an elevated risk group. Maybe he gets another chance to compete for a 2021 rotation spot. Maybe he gets lost in the shuffle.

Cole Sulser - Sulser led the Orioles in saves, with five, and in losses, with five. He will be 31 years old next Opening Day and he just walked 17 batters in 22.2 innings. That’s gonna be a no from me, dawg.

Austin Wynns - The Orioles brought in Holaday as the third catcher rather than using a catcher they already had, Wynns, which gives me an inkling that maybe the front office doesn’t have a lot of use for Wynns down the road.

Andrew Velazquez - A .159/.274/.206 batting line in 77 plate appearances is so dreadfully poor that he may not get another shot.

The Chris Davis memorial elephant in the room

Most Orioles fans have long since concluded that Davis will never be anything other than a waste of roster space until the O’s decide to eat the remaining cost of his contract. He has done nothing, beyond a few pre-COVID spring training weeks in 2020, to make anyone feel differently about him.

In late September, Kubatko addressed Davis’s status and described the “status of the 2021 season” - particularly the possibility that they might play fewer than 162 games next season if the pandemic is still causing disruption - as a factor in the team not dumping Davis yet. He noted that the Orioles saved about $14 million of Davis’s contract by the shortened 2020 season.

If that’s still how they’re thinking, it seems like they’ll give Davis one last chance to revive during next spring training and they won’t part with him during this offseason.

Conclusion

Even excluding Davis, the number of players on my “won’t lose any sleep if the Orioles remove them from the roster” stands at seven. Add that to the two free agents and there is plenty of room to protect any one of the next wave of prospects that they want to protect. Their only question will be which of the candidates is worth it.