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Prospects to keep an eye on as the Orioles head into the Rule 5 draft

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Players picked in the Rule 5 draft don’t have a high success rate. The Orioles dutifully splash in it every year. Maybe this year it’ll go better.

Yankees pitching prospect Garrett Whitlock in action in his college days at UAB.
Garrett Whitlock was drafted by the Yankees from UAB, and now he’s a Rule 5 eligible player.
Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The annual winter bonanza for the Orioles is only a day away. That’s right: The Rule 5 draft is coming up tomorrow. Under Dan Duquette, this was the closest thing O’s fans experienced to Christmas. Since Mike Elias took over the helm, the O’s have made three selections in the span of two drafts. He signaled to Orioles reporters yesterday that the Orioles will be making at least one choice in the draft this time around.

There is not a high likelihood of Rule 5 draft picks making much of an impact with their new clubs. In older times under different rules, this was not always the case. Today, players do not become Rule 5 draft eligible until, generally speaking, five years after signing for international amateur players, four years after being drafted for high school players, and three years after being drafted for college players.

A couple of weeks ago, the Orioles went through the process of deciding which of the eligible prospects to protect from this draft by adding them to the 40-man roster. The Orioles loaded up, keeping six prospects safe. Every other team had the opportunity to make the same decisions.

The result is that the most promising players are locked up. A team looking to make a selection is most likely to end up with a forgettable player (Jason Garcia, 2014 Orioles pick), or with some modest luck a lightly useful role player (Ryan Flaherty, 2011), or with much more luck a player who, with some patience, blooms years later (Anthony Santander, 2016).

Last year, when the Orioles made two selections - Michael Rucker and Brandon Bailey - both of those players were returned to their original teams before spring training went on pause. For any given Rule 5 pick, that is probably what will happen. He goes back to his original team. Rule 5 picks must remain on the active roster all year or be offered back, and if a guy ends up on the injured list for much of the season, his Rule 5 status will carry over to the next season.

If the Orioles had known they were going to have a 28-man roster for the whole of a shortened season, they probably would have tried to keep one or the other. Tough luck. Through the wonders of baseball roster maneuvering, Bailey, selected by the O’s from the Astros and returned to those same Astros, is now on the Reds 40-man roster. Best of luck to him.

With the understanding that this year’s Rule 5 draft selection(s) probably won’t matter for the future of the Orioles, that the Orioles will likely not plug any big hole in the roster even if they have a modestly successful pick, and that the Orioles pick fifth and players they like could be picked before their turn comes along, here are a few guys I’ll be keeping my eye on tomorrow. If the O’s so desire, they could finagle two selections in the draft, as they currently have two open spots on their 40-man roster.

My impression of Elias is that he’s going to look for players who have at least managed some success in Double-A, rather than go for some Low-A longshot. Within that group, I also think the O’s would look for a player who could either break in as a utility infielder or as a garbage time bullpen guy. There are enough outfielders, first basemen, and designated hitters to sift through around here already.

RHP Garrett Whitlock, Yankees

Starting with a Yankees player because I enjoy the idea of the O’s possibly picking the Yankees’ pocket. Whitlock was an 18th round pick in 2017. Elias has seemed to have an eye on under-the-radar lower-round picks from recent drafts for his trade targets. He sped through Low-A and High-A in his first full season as a pro, striking out over a batter per inning, and was doing well in a half-season of Double-A before he needed Tommy John surgery in July 2019.

Anyone on the road back from that surgery is a bit of a risk, and with the pandemic impacting everything this year, Whitlock’s rehab was probably atypical as well. A team that finished 49 games out of first place in the last full baseball season is the team that might take a chance on benefiting from the unknown. It only costs $100,000 to make a Rule 5 pick, and if the player is returned later, the team gets half of that back.

INF Omar Estevez, Dodgers

Since the Orioles non-tendered their starting second baseman and traded their starting shortstop last week, a 2B/SS candidate might not be a bad pick. Estevez was rated at the 40 FV tier by Fangraphs before this season, which is also where recently-added Orioles infield prospect Rylan Bannon resides.

Estevez, who will be 23 in February, has split time in the middle infield, though any scouting report on him will note “bat-first” or “offensive-minded.” If he could field, he wouldn’t have been exposed to the Rule 5 draft. He batted .291/.352/.431 across 83 Double-A games in 2019. It seems like it would be tougher to hide a bad-glove utility guy than a bad-bat utility guy. Speaking of which...

INF Kyle Holder, Yankees

In an interview with MASN’s Steve Melewski yesterday, Baseball America’s J.J. Cooper pegged Holder, 26, as one of the available names in what he called a “pretty good Rule 5 class.” The Yankees drafted Holder five picks after the Orioles took DJ Stewart in the first round in 2015. Next season will be his age 27 season. That’s old for a guy to still be any kind of prospect.

In his most recent minor league season, Holder batted .265/.336/.405 over 112 games in Double-A. You’d take that kind of performance from any non-first base infielder at the MLB level, but as ever, the jump between Double-A and MLB would be a big one. Cooper called Holder a “really good glove,” and with the O’s having traded Jose Iglesias, they might want to look for a Rule 5 pick who can help the defense. It would be difficult for Cooper to hit worse than 2019 O’s shortstop Andrew Velazquez.

RHP Jose Alberto Rivera, Astros

“GM acquires player from his former organization” is usually a decent MLB prediction, and the O’s already grabbed a Rule 5 guy from the Astros last year. R.J. Anderson of CBS Sports notes some industry speculation puts the O’s with Rivera for this year’s draft because Elias and company may have some familiarity with him from when they were still in Houston.

I would be surprised if that buzz pans out, because Rivera has not yet pitched above Low-A despite turning 24 in February. He was an older signing out of the Dominican Republic, not joining an MLB organization until he was 19 rather than the usual 16, and only made it to a full-season minor league level in 2019.

Nice strikeout numbers in Low-A in 2019, with 95 racked up in 75.2 innings, but Rivera also walked 36 and unloaded an additional 16 wild pitches. It would be tough to have a player jump from the Midwest League to MLB, even on a team with low expectations. Rivera’s MLB Pipeline scouting capsule, where he is rated the #14 prospect in the Astros system, notes that he hit 100 on the radar gun last season. That’ll get any team’s attention, but again, that’s a tough leap for any player, and especially for a player who has issues with command.

LHP Packy Naughton, Angels

Some people are bestowed with old timey baseball names by their parents upon birth. Others are named Patrick, then pick up the nickname Packy along the way in life. Packy Naughton could have easily been born in 1896 instead of 1996, you know?

Naughton was traded by the Reds to the Angels at the 2020 deadline, and his new team declined to put him on the 40-man roster. Bit of a head-scratcher for me, but the reason he’s left exposed is probably that, as Fangraphs notes, his fastball averaged 89mph in 2019. When you have a guy whose scouting report includes “funky,” “deceptive,” or “hides the ball well” - or all of the above - there is never much margin for error.

FG’s Eric Longenhagen also notes, however, that “pitchers whose best attributes are their command and a changeup often outperform industry expectations,” an outcome he sees as possible for Naughton. The O’s already have Zac Lowther and Alexander Wells in this “crafty lefty” prospect bucket; they might think that’s enough, or they might think to throw one more in there to increase the likelihood that one of their crafty lefty guys succeeds.

RHP Brian Howard, Athletics

This dude is listed at 6’9”, and in contrast to what seems like every other mega tall pitcher out there, does not come with command problems. In 23 starts for Double-A Midland in 2019, Howard issued just 39 free passes in 130 innings. Minor League Baseball reporter Sam Dykstra remarks on the downside, namely that Howard doesn’t have the velocity you’d expect from a tall guy, either, only working in the low-90s.

The Orioles, as we are all well aware, need all of the pitching they can squeeze into the organization. I think a Rule 5 pitcher who has been a starter in the past could serve in a swingman role while being evaluated, without blocking any of the prospects O’s fans are hoping to see unless picking Howard really works out great for the team.

The lightning round

The guys above are the ones I actually think the O’s might take. Here are a few more players on assorted Rule 5 draft-eligible lists who interest me for more esoteric reasons.

RHP Zack Brown, Brewers

I think it would be fun if the Orioles had a player named Brown. My honorary cousin had a 2.44 ERA in 22 games at Double-A in 2018, with a 3.22 strikeout/walk ratio. That’s pretty good! In 2019, he had a 5.79 ERA in 25 games in Triple-A. That’s how you get left off the 40-man.

SS/3B Kevin Smith, Blue Jays

It would also be fun if the Orioles had a second prospect named Kevin Smith, after trading for a lefty pitcher from the Mets in August. This Smith went to the University of Maryland. He hit .302/.358/.528 between Low-A and High-A in 2018, then sunk to a .666 OPS with 151 strikeouts in 468 plate appearances in 2019. That is also how you get left off the 40-man.

RHP Riley Pint, Rockies

You’ve got to have busted pretty bad to go from the #4 overall pick four years ago to being on the heap of Rule 5 eligible players. Pint has walked 124 batters in 156 professional innings.