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An early preview of next year’s Orioles 40-man roster decisions

The Orioles put six prospects on the 40-man roster ahead of this year’s Rule 5 draft. Another crop awaits next offseason.

Lloyd Fox/The Baltimore Sun/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

On Friday evening, the Orioles filled up their 40-man roster with six Rule 5 draft-eligible prospects who will all hopefully find their way onto the next good Orioles team. It feels like a good sign for the future that there are as many prospects worth having on the 40-man roster.

In about a year’s time, unless something comes along and tosses the entire baseball calendar out of whack, the Orioles will be facing another set of 40-man decisions with next year’s wave of eligible players. For the most part, that means high school draftees from the 2017 draft and college draftees from the 2018 draft.

Many of the players in this group were included in the Orioles 60-man player pool doing work at the alternate training site during the 2020 season. Some who were not in Bowie were invited to the instructional camp in Sarasota in the month of October.

No team was able to have a regular development for its prospects with no minor league seasons in 2020, and it’s no guarantee things will be normal for the minors in 2021, but the O’s have at least gotten to get some impressions about their next wave of young players that, combined with whatever they can see in 2021, will let them make informed decisions about what to do with each individual.

2017 Orioles high school draftees

The Orioles first two picks in the 2017 draft were high school players. That was lefty pitcher DL Hall and shortstop Adam Hall. DL is from Georgia; Adam is from Ontario. They are not related.

DL Hall was most likely headed for Double-A Bowie in ordinary circumstances in 2020, unless his command problems at Frederick last year, when he walked 54 batters in 80.2 innings, concerned the Orioles. Those command problems did not bother the prospect ranking crowd, with Hall ranking 64th on the latest MLB Pipeline top 100 list. The fact that he struck out 116 batters even with those command problems probably has something to do with it.

Adam Hall, hailing from a place where baseball isn’t a year-round activity, was a level behind DL. He played in short-season Aberdeen in 2018 and Delmarva in 2019. With the Shorebirds, he batted .298/.385/.395 in 122 games, stealing 33 bases in 42 tries. He’s one of the players in the O’s system where I’m most interested to see what they do with him in 2021. If he does well and the O’s are aggressive, he could end the year at Bowie.

Barring a collapse in 2021, I think both of these are guys the O’s will want to protect a year from now. Even if they collapse a bit, the O’s could still want to protect them so they don’t become some other team’s reclamation project.

2018 Orioles college draftees

The top Orioles pick in this draft was high schooler Grayson Rodriguez, who won’t be eligible for another two years. Their next two picks were from the college ranks: shortstop Cadyn Grenier and right-handed pitcher Blaine Knight.

Neither of these players looks like an automatic add one year from now. The old Orioles front office liked Grenier’s glove and ignored questions about his bat in picking him 37th in the 2018 draft. He has hit a combined .236/.339/.369 as a pro, but he had to repeat Low-A to start the 2019 season. Grenier was not included on the October instructional camp roster. I don’t think he’s on Mike Elias’s radar.

The O’s of 2018 gave Knight an overslot $1.1 million bonus in the third round. The 2019 season was unkind to the former Arkansas Razorback, as he ended up with an unsightly 6.13 ERA in 18 games, with a strikeout to walk ratio of 56-39 in 83.2 innings. He did, at least, get invited to Sarasota in October. If he bounces back, perhaps he will be a candidate to be added.

If it was only the Orioles own draftees they had to worry about, next year’s “protect them from the Rule 5 draft” crop would probably be small. However, there’s another group who will also become eligible to consider: Players acquired by Mike Elias over the last year who were 2018 college draftees and will become Rule 5 eligible next winter.

2018 college draftees acquired by the Mike Elias Orioles

  • Dylan Bundy trade: Kyle Bradish
  • Mychal Givens trade: Terrin Vavra
  • Miguel Castro trade: Kevin Smith
  • Tommy Milone trade: AJ Graffanino, Greg Cullen

Smith and Vavra were already on their original teams’ respective 60-man player pools, so they were able to join the group in Bowie after those trades were made. The Orioles have seen them a little bit in 2020. Vavra was also at the instructional camp in October.

It’s hard to know what to make of some of these players in the absence of any kind of public data or game statistics from 2020. Smith looks like the most advanced in that he seemed to conquer the High-A level in 2019, striking out 102 batters in 82.2 innings while walking just 24. That earned him six starts at Double-A.

Vavra, on the other hand, closed out his first full professional season at the Low-A level, where he batted .318/.409/.489 in 102 games. That’s good, but for a 22-year-old to do that at Low-A, it doesn’t mean much. Despite this, Vavra ranks at #13 on Pipeline’s Orioles top 30 prospects.

Bradish is a bit more of an unknown quantity. Though he was drafted in 2018, the Angels did not have him make his pro debut until 2019, when he jumped right to High-A. Bradish’s 4.28 ERA in 24 games doesn’t look great, but the California League is a hitter-friendly league, so his 120 strikeouts in 101 innings is what to focus on. He was probably headed for the Bowie rotation in 2020, and if he did well there, that would have been a great sign.

Graffanino is still more of a speculative play, since he only has 44 professional games to his credit. He had just one at-bat in 2019 before suffering a season-ending injury, so he essentially hasn’t gotten above Low-A. Cullen batted .270/.393/.401 for Low-A in 2019, but he was 22, which is, again, old for the level. Since these were players to be named later only named this month, the O’s didn’t see them over the summer or have the chance to have them in Sarasota in October.

Elias’s 2020 additions to the 40-man roster were all players who had at least gotten to, and had some success at, the Double-A level. If he has the same standard for next year’s wave of possibilities, then any one of these guys needs to show something good at Bowie to be on the radar. But he might bring a different philosophy to this group, given how the pandemic knocked their development off track.

At this point, I’d rate Smith as more likely than not to be a 40-man addition, with Bradish and Vavra being more coin flips depending on 2021 performance. Others seem more like long shots, unless they light the minors on fire next season. Added to the two Halls, the Orioles could end up with four or five prospects worthy of inclusion.

Making room on the roster

Any number of filler-level players on the 40-man roster could come and go between now and next November. If commissioner Rob Manfred made like some evil wizard and forced Elias to clear space for these players right now instead of next November, he could probably make room for at least three with little stress.

Other players will sink into this category by the end of the 2021 season, especially players like Rio Ruiz or DJ Stewart, who could find themselves squeezed out by some of the prospect depth at their positions. There could also be players who are non-tendered next week, or players who have shown enough while playing on the rebuilding Orioles to be trade candidates for another team.

On the other side of this, there could also be players who arrive on the 40-man roster sooner than expected. If 2019 #1 pick Adley Rutschman’s performance warrants it, I don’t think that many Orioles fans would object to seeing him during the later parts of the 2021 season, long before his Rule 5 draft eligibility comes along.

As things stand right now, the Orioles would also have three roster spots open up from players who are set to become free agents after next season: Alex Cobb, Jose Iglesias, and Yolmer Sanchez.

If Chris Davis’s failure continues even once the pandemic is in the rear view mirror and there’s no more thought of avoiding some of his salary obligations due to canceled games, he could perhaps finally be a candidate to be released, with only his 2022 salary as dead money.

With all of that in mind, if the Orioles are fortunate enough to have another bounteous harvest of prospects to add to the 40-man roster next fall, it doesn’t look like they will have a very hard time finding roster space for those guys. Another 4-5 worthy candidates to put on the 40-man roster would be a nice sign that maybe something other than rebuilding is on its way to Baltimore eventually.