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The Orioles face a looming 40-man roster crunch this offseason

With a slew of prospects to protect, and a few tough arbitration decisions to make, the Orioles are in for a busy offseason.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles-Workouts Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

Each excruciating day that passes means that the Orioles’ full-blown organizational rebuild inches closer to completion. It felt as if a monumental leap forward had been taken on Sunday evening when the club promoted the sport’s top prospect, catcher Adley Rutschman, to Triple-A Norfolk. The 23-year-old is now on the major league doorstep and will soon be loudly banging on the door. But as your internal pessimist has likely already concluded, the odds of Rutschman actually making it to Baltimore before 2021 ends are remote.

There are a few factors at work here, and yes, service-time manipulation is one of them. For the Orioles, under the current collective bargaining agreement, it benefits them most to keep Rutschman in the minors through the first 16 days of the 2022 season. As that CBA expires after this season, that may change, but it remains the law of the land for now and will all but ensure his big league debut is kicked to next year.

Another factor, which we will dig a bit deeper into here, is the juggling of the 40-man roster. Rutschman is not currently on the team’s 40-man roster, and at this rate he won’t need to be added to it until he makes his big league debut. Considering how much general manager Mike Elias has already shuffled the roster this summer, he would appreciate as much flexibility throughout the winter as he can get. Leaving Rutschman out of it until the last minute will be helpful.

The Orioles have a few significant roster decisions related to the 40-man roster that will need to be made this offseason. A slew of prospects have to be protected from the Rule 5 draft, and some experienced big leaguers are coming up on raises via arbitration.

Rule 5 round-up

The Rule 5 draft has become an annual tool by which the Orioles have, sometimes effectively, added major-league-ready talent to the organization. In the past they grabbed Ryan Flaherty and Joey Rickard this way. More relevant to the current club, this is how Anthony Santander and Tyler Wells made their way to Baltimore.

Players become eligible for the Rule 5 draft once they have been a professional for long enough. Anyone who signs their first contract before age-19 is eligible after their fifth pro season. Anyone who signs at age-19 or older is eligible after their fourth pro season. Teams protect players by placing them on their 40-man roster. Baseball America can explain the specifics, but that gives you the basic idea.

The Orioles lost pitcher Zach Pop in the Rule 5 draft last year, and another pitcher, Gray Fenter, was selected as well before being returned. It’s possible another player is plucked this December, but the club will want to limit the losses where possible.

These are some of the more noteworthy players that are Rule 5-eligible for the first time this winter: D.L. Hall, Adam Hall, Kyle Bradish, Robert Neustrom, Kevin Smith, Terrin Vavra, Blaine Knight, and Lamar Sparks.

Then there is this group of players that was Rule 5-eligible last year, and will remain up for grabs unless protected: Brett Cumberland, Mason McCoy, Nick Vespi, Ofelky Peralta, Cody Sedlock, Cameron Bishop, Felix Bautista, and Ignacio Feliz.

To give you an idea of how many players will actually be protected, the O’s added six players to their 40-man roster last November to prevent them from being scooped up. The number is likely to be in the same ballpark this year with a healthy majority (if not all of them) coming from the batch of first-time eligible players, although they could protect more depending on how they handle other offseason moves.

Arbitration arguments

For many players, reaching arbitration is their first opportunity to make some serious money as a professional. They will get slightly closer to earning the type of salary they deserve given their production on the field. Predictably, teams don’t like to give out that type of money to just anyone, even if they have been solid contributors.

Last season, the Orioles opted to DFA team home run leader Renato Núñez and non-tender everyday second baseman Hanser Alberto rather than give them a raise, while they did give contracts for 2021 to Santander, Trey Mancini, Shawn Armstrong, Pedro Severino, and Pat Valaika. Sort of a mixed bag there.

Santander, Mancini, and Severino will be due further pay increases this year. Joining them will be arbitration first-timers Richie Martin, John Means, Jorge López, Paul Fry, Adam Plutko, and Tanner Scott.

The most likely non-tenders would seem to be López and Plutko, although their raises will be modest. Martin might fall into that same group. It would be a small shock if Santander isn’t tendered given his obvious upside, but a poor 2021 and a track record of injuries make it possible. Severino could also be at risk given the upcoming arrival of Rutschman. With Austin Wynns already around, it may not make sense to pay Severino over $2 million to be a backup.

Walking wounded

And before you start to think that this all sounds simply enough, remember that the 60-day IL does not exist in the offseason. Throughout the summer, teams essentially gain additional 40-man roster spots by placing players on an extended IL stint. That disappears sometime after the World Series.

The Orioles currently have two players on the 60-day IL: Travis Lakins Sr. and Chris Davis. The decision on Lakins should be straightforward enough. There is a chance he will be ready for the spring, and as a pitcher with options remaining who is yet to hit arbitration he will likely return.

Things are more complicated with Davis. He’s no longer a big league-caliber player. But 2022 is the final season of his big contract, and it could be the time to cut bait. We have all said that before, though, so we won’t believe it until it actually happens.

Impossible to predict

MLB’s upcoming offseason is shrouded in more uncertainty than the league has seen in some time. The CBA needs to be renegotiated, and it is entirely possible that the start of the regular season is delayed. So, this may be the worst year to attempt to predict what a team will do in the winter.

But for a club that remains at least one more year away from contention, these are the sorts of moves that make up the bulk of player movement until brighter days arrive.