Spring cleaning came early for the Orioles this year, as the offseason started and fifteen names were quickly knocked off the roster. Some were expected: Zack Burdi, Tom Eshelman, Konner Wade, Pat Valaika, Austin Wynns, Conner Greene, Marcos Diplán, Eric Hanhold, Matt Harvey, Fernando Abad, Pedro Severino, Spenser Watkins, Nick Ciuffo. Some were less so: Chris Ellis (the Orioles’ second-most effective starter this season) and Hunter Harvey (the perennially injured but super talented former first-round pick),
Then the Orioles then built back up the roster to 32 players by reinstating four—Jorge López, Keegan Akin, Jorge Mateo and DJ Stewart—from the injured list and making one pickup: RHP Bryan Baker, a 6’6” righty who had a 1.31 ERA and 11 saves for Toronto’s Triple-A affiliate, the Buffalo Bisons, last season.
That leaves eight slots on the 40-man roster to fill with eligible prospects by today at 6 p.m., the deadline for protecting players from the Rule 5 draft. (With the threat of a lockout looming, the Rule 5 draft, scheduled for Wednesday, December 8, remains in limbo, but today’s deadline still stands.)
Per the rules, Rule 5 draft eligibility is as follows: If a player was first signed at age 18, he must be added to the 40-man roster within five seasons. If he was signed at 19 or older, he must be protected within four seasons. The COVID-19 shortened 2020 season added one wrinkle: there are more eligible players than usual, over 2,100 players total. So there could be some surprises…
Just probably not for the Orioles. As MASN’s Roch Kubatko put it, with eight roster slots open, “No machinations are necessary this week.” The team is unlikely to protect eight players.
Who’s in and who’s out? If history is anything to go by, any eligible prospect on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 list should be safe. Over the last six seasons, 59 of 59 Rule 5-eligible prospects in the MLB Top 100 were protected. There is just one eligible Orioles prospect in the Top 100: flame-throwing lefty D.L. Hall (MLB No. 72). He’s had some injury issues this year, but this pick is as close to a lock as you can get. The Sun’s Jon Meoli just wrote:
Had Hall not injured his elbow [with a stress reaction] after seven dominant starts at Double-A Bowie this year, he’d be in the stratosphere with his teammate Grayson Rodriguez at the very top of the group of young arms in the game. As it stands, he still has the potential to be a dynamic big-league arm with a rare fastball that touches 100 mph and plenty of swing-and-miss secondary pitches.
Just a cut below Hall, agree MLB.com, The Sun, MASN, and BaltimoreBaseball.com, are three players on the Orioles’ Top 30 list: Kyle Bradish, RHP (No. 8), Terrin Vavra, 2B (No. 13), and Kevin Smith, LHP (No. 14). Another factor in this trio’s favor: they are all Mike Elias trade acquisitions (Bradish from Los Angeles for Dylan Bundy, Smith from the Mets for Miguel Castro, and Vavra from the Rockies for Mychal Givens).
After that, it gets trickier. The remainder of the list of Orioles prospects under consideration this week includes Robert Neustrom, Blaine Knight, Ofelky Peralta, Cody Sedlock, Nick Vespi, Félix Bautista, Adam Hall, Cadyn Grenier, Patrick Dorrian, Greg Cullen and Mason McCoy.
At the top of the pack may be the intriguing outfielder Neustrom, who made swing changes this season that yielded brand-new power. Says MASN: he “opened eyes, and not just in the Orioles organization, with a .344 on-base percentage, 31 doubles, 16 home runs and 83 RBIs between Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk.” For The Sun Neustrom remains a “wild card,” and several publications note that he could end up a casualty of the Orioles’ enviable outfield depth (yes! outfield depth!). Then again, it wouldn’t be bad to have backup in case this DJ Stewart thing doesn’t pan out…
On the pitching side, there are a few candidates who warrant serious consideration. The “massive” Félix Bautista “has harnessed his triple-digit fastball to develop passable command” at Triple-A Norfolk. With 77 Ks in 46.1 innings, he could be attractive to the Orioles—or if not, some other team—so long as his 4.4 walk rate doesn’t scare them away.
After years of undistinguished throwing, reliever Nick Vespi reached Triple-A this year with a new and improved fastball/slider combo. After excelling in Bowie, his ERA suffered in 16 games at Norfolk (clocking in at 6.86) but his 25 Ks in 19.2 innings earned him a spot in the Arizona Fall League Fall Stars game and he’s pitched well there this offseason. Will the Vespi resurgence be enough?
A “puzzle,” according to both The Sun and MASN, is right-hander Brenan Hanifee. A fourth-round pick in 2016, Hanifee hasn’t pitched since 2019, having missed all of 2021 with Tommy John surgery. Still, the 23-year-old former Orioles No. 18 prospect with the hard sink on his fastball has always gotten great reviews from scouts and the Orioles are “still very high” on the righty. The recovery from surgery could scare off some teams, though, leaving the Orioles to gamble that he won’t be selected.
Blaine Knight may be “the most intriguing” of the Duquette-era holdovers, says The Sun, on the strength of his pitch data alone, but he didn’t exactly finish 2021 on a high note: after posting a 2.41 ERA in four games in Aberdeen, he jumped up two levels, but finished with an 8.49 ERA in seven games at Norfolk.
Already passed over twice in past Rule 5 drafts is 2016 first-round pick Cody Sedlock, a righty starter who’s struggled with injuries. Sedlock had a resurgent 2019 season (a 2.84 ERA in 95 innings), but the Orioles still didn’t protect him. This season he saw his numbers taper off at the end of the season: a 4.55 ERA and a 1.47 WHIP with 100 strikeouts in 93 innings. It might not be enough.
Shortstop Cadyn Grenier, a 2018 first-rounder, has consistently failed to make much offensive impact, putting up a .216 average in 2016 with Delmarva, a .244 average between Delmarva and Frederick in 2019, and a .221 average between Bowie and Norfolk in 2021. It seems unlikely the Orioles use a roster spot to prevent another team from selecting Grenier as a defensive replacement.
Infielder Adam Hall is in a somewhat similar position, though with much more offensive upside. The 2017 second-rounder has pedigree as the organization’s No. 15 prospect, but he also struggled last season at the plate, with a .248/.335/.337 slashline and .672 OPS for Aberdeen. His .285 minors career average says otherwise, but as MASN speculates, Hall could end up the Orioles’ only Top 30 player to be left unprotected.
Finally, a few long shots: infielder Greg Cullen, a trade acquisition with a .271 career average and .793 OPS in the minors, has had relative success in Delmarva and in the Arizona Fall League. Infielder Pat Dorrian had himself a strong year at Bowie (.836 OPS). And there’s the 24-year-old Dominican right-hander Ofelky Peralta, who also reached Triple-A this year but hasn’t shown much to warrant a major league role just yet.
It may not be life-or-death for most fans—at this point in the season, this is what passes for excitement, people!—but there are plenty of players on this list with exciting potential. Hopefully the Orioles choose wisely today, and a number of these prospects get their chance with the big-league club soon.