Question for you, Orioles fans. Prior to 2021, when was the last time the O’s selected a player in the Rule 5 draft who made a significant contribution in his first year?
It’s a rare occurrence, as you might imagine. By definition, any player plucked in the Rule 5 is one who wasn’t on his former team’s 40-man roster — which usually means it’s someone with very little experience in the upper minors and none in the majors. The majority of Rule 5 picks don’t even last a full season with their new team before being sent back to their old one, and the lucky few that stick often face a rough first year as they’re thrown into the big league fire.
The Orioles, ever-enthusiastic participants in the Rule 5 draft, have made at least one selection every year since 2006, adding a total of 22 players in that span. Before this year, a grand total of one of them posted a positive Wins Above Replacement in his rookie season: 2012 selection T.J. McFarland, who had a whopping 0.1 WAR per Baseball Reference. Even Anthony Santander, the Orioles’ most successful recent Rule 5 pick, didn’t pay off until years after the draft. He was worth 0.0 WAR in his first season (2017), and -0.5 in his second, before finally beginning to contribute in the majors in 2019.
It’s just not easy for a raw, inexperienced youngster, who often plays only sporadically or in games that aren’t close, to prove himself a useful player right out of the gate. Which is what makes Tyler Wells’ standout rookie campaign in 2021 all the more impressive.
The tall right-hander started the season as an unknown commodity who hadn’t pitched in a professional game in three years. He ended it as the Orioles’ closer.
Yeah. It was quite the whirlwind.
Wells’ professional baseball journey began in 2016, when the Minnesota Twins made him a 15th-round selection out of California State University, San Bernardino. Wells steadily climbed the minor league ladder as a starting pitcher, moving through four levels in his first two full seasons to finish the 2018 season at Double-A Chattanooga. He wasn’t a particularly highly touted prospect at any point — topping out at #30 in the Twins’ system in 2018, per MLB Pipeline — but averaged better than a strikeout per inning and showed an intriguing pitch mix from a 6-foot-8 frame.
Wells’ career, unfortunately, hit a roadblock when he underwent Tommy John surgery in May 2019, costing him the rest of that season. Any chance of his returning to a minor league mound in 2020 was scuttled when the season was canceled because of COVID-19. By Dec. 2020, Wells was 26 years old and hadn’t pitched in more than two years. The Twins elected to leave him off their 40-man roster.
When the Rule 5 draft rolled around, Mike Elias and the Orioles saw an opportunity to take a gamble on a player whom O’s director of pro scouting Mike Snyder called “a 6-8 monster” who could throw strikes with a variety of pitches. The O’s didn’t even make Wells their first selection in that draft — they initially opted for Reds prospect Mac Sceroler, who would ultimately get torched for a 14.09 ERA in five games before being returned to Cincinnati — but grabbed Wells with the 17th pick.
Wells opened eyes in spring training, where he allowed just one run and struck out 12 in nine innings to earn a spot on the Orioles’ Opening Day roster. He made his MLB debut during the Orioles’ opening-weekend sweep in Boston, working a scoreless ninth in the finale with a seven-run lead.
Wells, though, was scored upon in each of his next five outings. He struggled in particular with the long ball, coughing up home runs in four consecutive games. Understandably, Brandon Hyde mainly relegated Wells to mop-up duty at first; after his debut, Wells’ next 12 appearances came in Orioles losses. By the end of May — a month in which he allowed runs in four of seven outings, giving up two more homers — Wells held a 5.48 ERA and a tenuous grasp on his roster spot.
But, as if a switch flipped, the Oklahoma native turned his season around in June. It began with a dominant, three-inning, scoreless relief performance June 2 against his former organization, the Twins, that earned him his first major league win. He rattled off 11 straight shutout innings from that point, earning Hyde’s trust.
Wells flashed a fastball that averaged 95 mph and mixed it effectively with his slider and changeup, also tossing in a curveball and sinker on occasion. The arsenal earned him a lot of whiffs — at one point, Wells went 18 straight outings with a strikeout, including all 10 appearances in June — and helped limit the traffic on the bases. He carried a 0.912 WHIP for the season and averaged less than two walks per nine innings. Simply put, he rarely got himself in trouble.
In a patchwork bullpen that was constantly shuttling pitchers up and down from Norfolk, usually with little success, the rookie right-hander practically became the seasoned vet of the crew. As one pitcher after another — Cesar Valdez, Paul Fry, etc. — tried and failed to hold onto the closer’s role, it only made sense that the red-hot Wells would get a crack at the job. But because the woeful Orioles rarely held late leads, Wells didn’t get an actual save opportunity until September. He successfully converted his first two before blowing two in a row against the Blue Jays and Yankees in mid-September.
He bounced back to notch two more saves but, while trying to nail down another against Texas on Sept. 24, Wells left with an injury after giving up a leadoff triple. He was diagnosed with right shoulder inflammation, bringing an early end to his otherwise impressive rookie season.
Wells finished with a 0.9 WAR, the highest for a first-year O’s Rule 5 pick since Jay Gibbons posted an identical 0.9 mark in 2001 (to answer the question from the beginning of this article). But in some ways, Wells’ value was incalculable. For large chunks of the season, particularly after the All-Star break, he was one of the very few reliable relievers on the Orioles’ staff. It’s hard to imagine that a 110-loss team could possibly have been worse, but without Wells, the bullpen easily could’ve blown a few more leads on the rare occasions the Orioles gave them one.
Looking ahead to 2022, the 27-year-old Wells will, hopefully, have a clean bill of health and be full-go in spring training. It’s not a given that he’ll start the year as the closer. In fact, it’s not a guarantee that he’ll be in the bullpen at all; the O’s could still consider converting him back to a starting role, as he spent most of his minor league career.
One way or another, though, Wells should be a lock for a spot on the Opening Day staff. He may have made the 2021 roster only because of his Rule 5 requirements, but he’ll make the 2022 roster because he’s earned it.
Tomorrow: Anthony Santander