Some day, the Orioles will be a good team again and the most exciting time of year to be an Orioles fan will be September or October. Until then, other months of the calendar that offer dates of significance to a rebuilding team are all we’ve got. A mid-November staple is the deadline for teams to add Rule 5 draft-eligible prospects to the 40-man roster, offering a chance to dream about players who will, we can hope, soon be contributing in Baltimore.
Ahead of this year’s deadline, the Orioles chose to add six of their eligible prospects onto the roster. The players they added are: Félix Bautista, Kyle Bradish, Logan Gillaspie, DL Hall, Kevin Smith, and Terrin Vavra. With the Orioles coming into this decision day with eight open spots on the 40-man roster, they did not need to make any corresponding moves in order to add all of these players.
The Orioles even snuck in a waiver claim a few hours before the Rule 5 roster deadline, plucking infielder Lucius Fox from the Royals. Fox, 24, was signed by the Giants, traded to the Rays in 2016, and later to the Royals in 2020. This season, he was limited to 57 games at Triple-A Omaha, where he batted .242/.347/.363, stealing 19 bases in 21 tries. He’s always been able to work a walk, but with limited power it’s tough to take advantage against higher level pitching. Time will tell if he’s just a roster churn guy who will be gone before spring training.
Since settling in as the Orioles general manager, Mike Elias has not been shy about adding a bunch of prospects at a time. In the last two years before this, the O’s have added a total of ten players to the 40-man roster when facing this Rule 5 draft deadline.
Eight of those ten players have appeared in a game with the Orioles by now, with only two of last year’s additions, Rylan Bannon and Yusniel Diaz, missing out due to injuries and poor minor league performance in the 2021 season. To date, every player the Elias-era Orioles have added in advance of this deadline - now 17 counting this year’s six guys plus the lone addition of Dillon Tate in 2018 - remains on their 40-man roster. That’s close to half of the team.
The players who become eligible for the Rule 5 draft this year are, generally speaking, 2017 high school draftees and 2018 college draftees. Notably, this means that the Orioles are still not having to add any of their own Elias-drafted players yet. That won’t happen until next year, when 2019 college picks become eligible. The O’s have had to start adding some of the players Elias has acquired in trades up to this point, with three added in this wave of prospects.
Hall, the Orioles first round pick in the 2017 draft, cracked most league-wide top 100 lists prior to the 2019 season. Evaluators like the lefty’s big velocity, but there are concerns he’s yet to silence about his command. Hall only started seven games this season before suffering a stress fracture in his throwing elbow that kept him from throwing a baseball until earlier this week. He walked 16 batters in his 31.2 innings, which is a yikes. Hall also struck out 56, which is amazing.
Bradish is the Orioles highest-ranked prospect (as judged by MLB Pipeline) who’s been acquired by Elias in a trade. The 6’4” righty, picked by the Angels in the fourth round in 2018 and sent to the O’s for Dylan Bundy, spent most of his 24 games this season with Triple-A Norfolk, where he had a 4.26 ERA overall. He finished the season strong, however, with a 1.80 ERA in five September/October starts, so we can hope he made adjustments for durable improvement.
Vavra, 24, was a third round pick by the Rockies in 2018. He arrived in the O’s system in the Mychal Givens trade. I was curious to see how he did this season to find out if he might stake out a spot in the Orioles infield of the future. Vavra missed much of the season with a back injury; in 40 games with Double-A Bowie, he batted .248/.388/.430. He’s split time between second and short as a pro, playing mostly at 2B with the O’s this year. Prior to the season, Fangraphs ranked him as the #9 O’s prospect, noting, “Plus-hitting, lefty infield sticks play forever.”
Smith, also 24, was a seventh round pick by the Mets in 2018. The Orioles picked him up in the Miguel Castro trade. A 6’5” lefty, Smith ran into severe difficulty upon arriving at Triple-A Norfolk this season, laboring to a 6.23 ERA in 16 games. That’s largely because he walked 49 batters in 56.1 innings, which is really hard to do. This is an aberration compared to Smith’s career to date, so it’s not a surprise that the O’s are willing to bet he’s still got some potential in there.
Bautista and Gillaspie are the much more surprising adds. While Bautista had his fans in the world of Orioles media, I still did not expect to see a 26-year-old reliever who had never pitched above Low-A before this season. Bautista first joined the O’s organization in 2016. Across three levels this season, topping out at Triple-A, he struck out 77 batters in 46.2 innings. That’s surely why he’s now added. He is another guy where walks are a problem, handing out 30 free passes in that time.
Gillaspie was not on my radar for this deadline at all. The 24-year-old righty joined the Orioles on a minor league contract this year. He played at two levels, topping out at Double-A Bowie. The 15-game sample size at Bowie did not go well for Gillaspie, with a 5.60 ERA. His 36/8 K/BB ratio is more promising. Gillaspie has been pitching in the Arizona Fall League, where he has another bad ERA (9.00 in five games) and better K/BB (18/7).
The next question to be answered is whether any of the players the Orioles did not choose to protect end up getting selected by another team. Last year’s Rule 5 draft saw two O’s prospects, Gray Fenter and Zach Pop, taken.
Fenter was eventually returned by the Cubs, but Pop, who was near the end of a Tommy John surgery rehab, was picked by Arizona, traded to Miami, and managed to stick all season with the Marlins. Pop had a 4.12 ERA in 50 games, with significantly better performance in the second half of the year. Pop allowed just five earned runs in his final 23 outings, a 1.90 ERA. Given the number of scrubs the O’s had to cycle through the bullpen this year, they seem to have made a bad decision in leaving Pop available last year.
At the moment, I won’t be losing sleep over any of the players who were not protected, but I didn’t expect Pop to get picked last year and now he did. I think it is not great for the Orioles if they misjudge which players are worth protecting and end up losing possible future pieces for nothing. My top “Maybe they should have protected this guy” is outfielder Robert Neustrom, who OPSed .790 between Bowie and Norfolk this year.
The Rule 5 draft is currently scheduled for December 9. However, it will be postponed if the CBA expires and owners initiate a lockout that freezes MLB-level transactions. The draft is expected to still take place even if delayed once a new CBA is reached.