The Orioles entered Friday’s decision day on which Rule 5 draft-eligible prospects to add to the 40-man roster to protect them from the draft with five open spots on the roster. They ended up adding six players to the roster. The O’s started by designating Renato Nunez for assignment, then selecting the contracts of pitchers Michael Baumann, Zac Lowther, Isaac Mattson, and Alexander Wells, outfielder Yusniel Diaz, and infielder Rylan Bannon.
Nunez being designated for assignment is a bit of a surprise in the sense that I didn’t expect that to be happening today. His name has come up as a candidate to be non-tendered as the Orioles try to clear out a positional logjam with Trey Mancini’s pending return, Ryan Mountcastle’s emergence, and more. In 52 games in the 2020 season, Nunez batted .256/.324/.492, with twelve homers.
Prospects become eligible for the Rule 5 draft at different times depending on what age they were drafted or signed. For this year’s draft, newly eligible players are those who were 18 or younger when they joined the organization in 2016, or who were 19 or older when they joined the organization in 2017. In general, that means international signings from the 2015-16 signing period, high school draftees from 2016, and college draftees from 2017.
The Orioles choosing to protect six players was a higher number than expected. Common wisdom seemed to be that the O’s would protect four players and maybe a fifth. Instead, they went with six. This is not a bad thing, unless you are Nunez.
Diaz was the high-profile addition in the Manny Machado trade. He was at Double-A at the time of that deal and between injuries, slumps, and the pandemic, has yet to play a game above that level. In 2019, he hit .262/.335/.472 for the Baysox as a 22-year-old.
Baumann and Lowther were selected with consecutive Orioles picks in the 2017 draft. Lowther was a post-second round competitive balance pick. Baumann was a third round pick. Lowther, a lefty, struck out 154 batters in 148 innings for Bowie in 2019. Baumann split 2019 between Frederick and Bowie, striking out 142 batters in 124 innings.
Bannon, another Machado trade piece, split time between second base and third base with Bowie and Norfolk in the 2019 season, batting a combined .266/.345/.421. At Fangraphs today, Eric Longenhagen suggested Bannon’s close-to-MLB status at Hanser Alberto’s two positions could push Alberto into the non-tender pile on December 2.
Wells is a personal favorite prospect of mine. The Australian lefty, whose twin brother is a Twins prospect - yes, the Twins did not sign both twins, it still amazes me - did not make it to the United States in 2020, but he’s coming off a season where he had a 2.95 ERA in 137.1 innings for Bowie, with just 24 walks. That’s good control. He went on to the Arizona Fall League last year and had a 0.57 ERA over 15.2 innings.
Mattson was part of the Dylan Bundy trade last offseason. He has yet to get to pitch in the Orioles system. The righty reliever was originally drafted by the Angels in the 19th round three years ago. In 2019, he struck out 110 batters in 73.1 innings across three levels, mostly Double-A. He also went to the AFL, with a 1.69 ERA in 10.2 innings there.
The only player frequently mentioned as a borderline candidate to be added to the 40-man roster who didn’t get added here is Zach Pop, another part of the Machado trade return. Pop had Tommy John surgery last spring and again owing to the pandemic hasn’t pitched in any organized games. The O’s probably figure he’d be too much of a risk for a team to take in the Rule 5 draft. I would guess they’re right, though we’ll know for sure in a few weeks.
It’s not a bad thing for the state of the farm system to have more players who have at least borderline cases to get onto the 40-man roster than there are roster spots available. Four years ago, for instance, the Orioles added just two players to the roster at that time: Joe “The Gunk” Gunkel, and Jesus Liranzo. In retrospect, that’s a small, sad list. Adding six players, several of whom have been prospects O’s fans who follow the minors have been excited about for a couple of years, is much more exciting.
Last year at this time, the O’s protected Keegan Akin, Dean Kremer, Ryan Mountcastle, and Ryan McKenna. We ended up seeing three of those four guys at the big league level in 2020. It’s better still if these players force their way up to MLB before they become Rule 5 eligible, but let’s not be too picky. The 2021 season could end up bringing any, and hopefully all, of today’s 40-man additions up to Baltimore.
With a full 40-man roster after today’s moves, the Orioles currently will not be able to make a Rule 5 draft selection for themselves unless they make extra room. That can still be done with either non-tenders or trades. Last year, the Bundy and Jonathan Villar trades both came after the Rule 5 draft protection day but before the Rule 5 draft itself.
The choice of who to add gives us a good window into who the O’s think has the most near-term chance to make a difference for the team. It’s exciting to see that they have placed a half-dozen prospects in that category. Hopefully, that’s a sign that a better Orioles future isn’t far off.