Of the Orioles’ many problems, their lack of starting pitching options is, perhaps, their most glaring. That black hole on their roster grew slightly larger late last week when general manager Mike Elias decided to move on from the team’s two Rule 5 picks, Brandon Bailey and Michael Rucker. It’s a decision that could signal how the front office approaches their pitching staff all season long.
Cutting a Rule 5 pick, in a vacuum, is not a surprising decision. After all, these are players that have been professionals for several seasons and yet their organization have not deemed them worthy of 40-man roster spots. They are fringy. Their status may change slightly from club to club, but, in general, they will always been on the borderline of a major league cup of coffee and a Triple-A bus ride.
But context matters, and these two Rule 5 picks were cut from what may be the most pitching-starved team on the planet. Right now, the Orioles are relying on a second-year pitcher who posted some good, yet flukey, stats in his rookie season, a 32-year-old with a lengthy injury history who pitched in just three games last year, and a 31-year-old who has never spent an entire season in the big leagues. And those aren’t players that are fighting for roster spots either. On the contrary, they could be the trio atop the rotation.
Beyond John Means, Alex Cobb and Asher Wojciechowski, the Orioles are looking to Keegan Akin, David Hess, Travis Lakins, Kohl Stewart, Thomas Eshelman, Wade LeBlanc and Tommy Milone as other potential starters. Bailey and/or Rucker are likely better than at least one of those pitchers. In fact, Elias said as much after the move to cut them was announced.
“Both of those guys would upgrade our stable and that’s why we took them,” Elias said, “but it’s just tougher than ever to carry Rule 5 pitchers.”
There is the GM admitting that these two 25-year-olds are better than what the the team still has in camp, but that their roster status makes them difficult to keep around. Why? Well, here is Elias to explain again:
“We’ve just got to be realistic about it. Our pitching staff, it’s going to be a slog to get through the season and some of these stretches in the schedule with the new roster rules and the new option rules. So I’d love to have both guys, but doing it via the avenue of carrying them at the major league level all year long, I just think it was going to be a stretch.”
There are three new rules that Elias is referring to there. First, teams will only be allowed to carry 13 pitchers at a time except on the day of a double-header, when they can add a 14th. Second, when a player is optioned to the minors they must remain there for 15 days unless there is an injury at the big league level—this used to be 10 days. And third, pitchers that enter a game must face at least three batters, barring injury.
MLB doesn’t want teams to jockey players between the minors and majors as much, and they want fewer pitching changes in general. That means more pressure on the pitchers that do get into games, and that could spell disaster for a pitcher that gets in over his head.
The Orioles know that their pitching staff will be weak, regardless of whether the two Rule 5 picks are part of it or not. They clearly anticipate a lot of moving pieces and while Bailey or Rucker may have more talent than a few players still in camp, the difference was not enough to keep them around and force the O’s to do roster gymnastics in the process. It was a choice between greater flexibility and slightly higher upside.
Moving on from the two Rule 5 picks opened up a pair of 40-man roster places, and the Orioles have already filled one of them with a player that better fits the team’s 2020 plans. On Sunday, they claimed right-handed pitcher Hector Velazquez, a 31-year-old who owns a career 3.90 ERA in 166 big league innings. He has 19 starts and 70 relief appearances in his MLB career. Plus he does have one minor league option remaining, according to Roster Resource.
It remains to be seen how the O’s intend to fill the other spot. LeBlanc, a 35-year-old non-roster invitee is thought to have the inside track, which makes some sense. The lefty has enough service time that he could refuse any minor league assignment, so the team does not gain any flexibility in that regard. But LeBlanc has also pitched in the big leagues for parts of 11 seasons in both starting and relieving roles, which allows the O’s to plug him into any role and remain confident that he would not embarrass himself. All of that adds up to a player that is likely to be on the Orioles roster all season long, and won’t need the “protecting” that a young Rule 5 pick might require.
The only pitchers currently in Orioles camp without options are LeBlanc, Cobb, Shawn Armstrong and Tommy Milone. That’s it. The team has prioritized collecting arms that they can move around throughout the season. It’s likely the same reason why they have not added a more expensive veteran like Andrew Cashner to the mix. Sure, he would be an upgrade, but he would also cost a couple million dollars, and what if the Boston Red Sox version of Cashner shows up to Orioles camp?
Instead, Elias and company are opting for a quantity vs. quality approach to “slog” through the upcoming season and hope for a brighter future.
This decision to move on from two Rule 5 picks won’t have much of a ripple effect on the Orioles, but it is emblematic of the approach they will take to roster construction for the near future. Until the front office feels that they have a core that is ready to compete for a playoff spot these sorts of pragmatic yet unexciting moves will persist.