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In hindsight, Orioles may regret returning Rule 5 selections

The Orioles returned Rule 5 selections Brandon Bailey and Michael Rucker back in March. After a shortened season brought reduced Rule 5 requirements, should the club regret the move?

MLB: FEB 18 Baltimore Orioles Photo Day Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Thursday, December 12, 2019 feels like quite a while ago. A lot has happened since then...

The ball dropped at midnight, and New York signed Gerrit Cole. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle left the royal family, and the President of the United States was impeached. There was Spring Training, and then Spring Training 2.0. A pandemic derailed the world as we knew it.

That’s why it’s okay if the 2019 Rule 5 draft is not exactly fresh in your memory. Don’t worry, I’ve got your back.

The Rule 5 draft is an annual and optional draft where teams with an open roster spot can select a player from another organization. To be eligible, a player must have signed with a team four to five years ago (depending on age), and still not be listed on that team’s 40-man. The team that selects a player offers $100,000 to his original team, and then gains temporary control of the athlete.

The player must remain on a team’s active roster for at least 90 days, and cannot be optioned to the minors all season, before the process is complete. If a team no longer wishes to keep that player on the roster, he must clear waivers and then be offered back to his original team.

All the way back in December, the Orioles selected pitchers Brandon Bailey and Michael Rucker in the draft. They had the second pick overall, and were the only club to make two selections. For a team lacking pitching depth, the moves made sense. The Orioles would bring the players to camp, and steal a prospect or two if the guys seemed worth stashing.

It’s a recipe that’s worked for Baltimore before. The Orioles used the draft to gain past contributors such as Joey Rickard, Ryan Flaherty and T.J. McFarland. They also picked up current players Anthony Santander and Richie Martin, and were never afraid of taking a chance on a guy.

Sure, most of those moves were made by the previous administration, but the selection of Martin a year ago shows Mike Elias is not above some dumpster diving. Martin’s bat took a while to develop, but he was poised to add depth to the roster before suffering a broken wrist last month.

Bailey, the O’s first selection, came with some extra buzz. The righty had previously played in Houston’s organization, so many felt Elias had some insider information. Bailey spent 2019 at Double-A, where he posted a 3.30 ERA over 92.2 innings. A sixth round pick in 2016, the former Gonzaga Bulldog was originally selected by Oakland before being acquired by the Astros.

While any player in the Rule 5 draft has some sort of flaw, it made sense that the American League champs did not have had room in their rotation for the 25-year-old. Bailey averaged over a strikeout an inning, and flashed enough potential to be worthy of the pick. Simply put, he was worth a look.

Every team had the option to steal Rucker away from the Cubs, but they all declined. Once the draft circled back around, the Orioles took another shot. Rucker had worked mainly as a reliever at Double-A in 2019, but the former 11th-round pick in 2016 had a knack for striking out batters. His 93/25 strikeouts/walks was enough to catch the O’s eye, and Elias decided to bring Rucker to camp.

Unfortunately, neither player showed enough for Baltimore to keep them around. In fact, both pitchers were returned to their original club before the Spring Training hiatus.

After sending back both players in March, Elias gave a brief explanation to the media. He said both were impressive, but the Orioles current roster situation, along with new pitching regulations, prevented the team from carrying multiple pitchers from Double-A.

That’s fair.

The Orioles needed a 40-man spot for Opening Day starter Tommy Milone and Wade LeBlanc. They eventually went with Travis Lakins, Evan Phillips, Cole Sulser and David Hess to round out the bullpen on Opening Day.

During a rebuild, a team must evaluate talent. The Orioles had a list of unknowns in their bullpen, and they decided they would rather see more of their current group than give Bailey and Rucker a chance.

Baltimore certainly could not have predicted the postponement of the 2020 season due to COVID-19. Back in March, the Orioles were gearing up for Opening Day. At the time, they could only carry 13 pitchers, and felt Rule 5 pitchers would limit flexibility.

However, with the benefit of hindsight, the Orioles may wish they would have kept the pair. After the season was shortened to 60 games, the Rule 5 roster requirement was reduced to only 50 games. Not only that, but rosters expanded to 30 players to begin the year.

The expanded rosters would have allowed Baltimore the flexibility it needed to give Bailey or Rucker a fair shake. It’s a lot easier to sneak a player through 50 games compared to 90, especially for a rebuilding club. After John Means was scratched from Opening Day, another spot opened up.

After being returned to Houston, Bailey has made two scoreless appearances for the ‘Stros. Rucker has not pitched for the Cubs.

Again, no one can blame Baltimore for not anticipating a short season, but it would help to have at least one of the two around. The Orioles, despite their surprising start, are still in rebuilding mode. The Richard Bleier trade made that abundantly clear. So wouldn’t it be nice to steal an upper level prospect or two? Instead, the Orioles elected to stay with David Hess.

Will Bailey or Rucker ever develop into something worth missing? Only time will tell. For now, the Orioles will go through a rare season without a Rule 5 player during the easiest time to stash one in recent memory.