Earlier this week, the Orioles added top pitching prospect Grayson Rodriguez and four other prospects to their 40-man roster to keep them protected from this year’s edition of the Rule 5 draft. The team has added at least five players in this way in each of the last three Novembers. Do they have the prospect depth where they will be adding that many again this time next year? If so, they may reach a point like some other teams where they have tough choices to make about who to protect and who to leave off, or who to trade to make room for the next wave.
Prospects become eligible for the Rule 5 draft at different times depending on how old they were when they first signed. Players 18 and younger become Rule 5 eligible in the fifth R5 draft after signing. Those who were 19 and older on signing become R5 eligible in the fourth draft after they turned pro.
For next year, that generally means players who were college picks in the 2020 draft, high school picks in the 2019 draft, or in the 2018 “J2” (formerly July 2; it’s since shifted to January 15) international amateur signing class.
The 2020 college class
This draft was truncated at five rounds due to the early months of the pandemic, so it contains a bigger than usual crop of undrafted free agents to consider. The Orioles just showed by adding Noah Denoyer this week that they don’t have any qualms about adding a UDFA if he’s shown enough promise.
This is the big one. We all know the long road that the #2 overall pick traveled to finally getting to play this year, more than two years after being drafted. Will he be able to get back to something close to the trajectory that the Orioles might have hoped when they picked him in 2020?
After absolutely laying waste to Low-A competition for a month, the O’s bumped Kjerstad up to High-A Aberdeen, where his batting line withered to .223/.312/.362 in 43 games. Things improved for him in his stint in the Arizona Fall League this month and last, as he finished with an OPS over 1.000 in 22 games. That was backed up with batted ball data: Kjerstad had the second-highest average exit velocity of AFL batters.
There are positives there, but I think that Kjerstad is really going to need to show some quality at least at the Double-A level to really solidify that he belongs on the 40-man roster. I’m hopeful he’ll be able to do this, but it’s not a sure thing by any means.
The Orioles used their second pick of this draft on infielder Jordan Westburg, who sits in the top 5 prospects in the system in at least one ranking (MLB Pipeline). He’s done little bit hit since being drafted, including this year, when he batted a combined .263/.355/.496 between Double-A and Triple-A. In other rankings, like at FanGraphs, Westburg is lower as the question how the new shift ban will impact Westburg’s defensive value.
I think that one way or another, the Orioles will not face a 40-man roster decision for Westburg next November. That’s because he’ll either have played his way to the O’s by the end of next season, or he’ll have gotten traded to another organization.
Picked in the second round in 2020, Haskin can get lost in the hype shuffle a bit since the 2020 and 2021 first round picks were used on outfielders, and the O’s added two more in the first two rounds in 2022.
Haskin is interesting because all he does is get on base. In his first minor league season in 2021, he had a .381 OBP between Delmarva and Aberdeen and he carried that up to Bowie this season, batting .264/.367/.455 in his age 23 season. That included some power he hadn’t showed previously - he only hit five homers in 2021 and upped that to 15 this year.
In a couple of years, the Orioles will probably look for a younger replacement for Ryan McKenna. Haskin looks like he might be that guy.
Assorted injuries have kept the O’s third rounder from this draft from getting above Low-A. It’s hard to imagine he’d be a 40-man addition candidate.
Ryan Watson, Brandon Young
These two pitchers were undrafted free agent signings. Watson pitched his way up to Triple-A this season, though most of his action was in Bowie’s rotation. His Double-A K/BB of 100/21 is interesting. 2023 will tell us if he can continue something like that at Norfolk. If so, he’s probably got MLB in his future.
Young only was able to make three starts for the Baysox this season before an injury ended his season. This dude is 6’6” and was a strikeout machine in 2021. If he demonstrates that in his return next year, he could be a 40-man candidate.
The 2019 high school class
This one is pretty easy since the Orioles only signed two high school players in 2019: Gunnar Henderson and Darell Hernaiz. Henderson ascended to the top of prospect lists and to MLB late this season, arriving well ahead of his 40-man deadline.
Hernaiz, drafted in the fifth round out of Puerto Rico, has been something of a late bloomer. He had to repeat at Delmarva to start this year after playing there all of last season, but played well enough that the shortstop raced past both Delmarva and Aberdeen to finish the year with Bowie. This was his age 20 season and he batted a combined .273/.341/.438. He could be a late arrival to the O’s mix of hyped infield prospects if he follows up last year with another strong season.
Orioles trade acquisitions
The O’s acquired this 5’11” righty in the deal that sent José Iglesias to the Angels. He spent his age 21 season pitching for Aberdeen, where he struck out 103 batters in 91.2 innings. Walk rate was a bit high, but he’s been a dark horse candidate and hasn’t done anything to push out of the picture yet. As with Hernaiz, and Kjerstad for that matter, Bowie next year will be the big test.
Part of the trade return from the Marlins for Cole Sulser and Tanner Scott. Velez was hurt for part of the year and started just 13 games, and when he pitched in Bowie he was getting bombed hard, giving up 12 home runs in 48.1 innings. Needs a turnaround to get himself into the 40-man picture for this time next year.
Two Tommy John holdovers
Kyle Brnovich and Zach Peek, both acquired from the Angels in the Dylan Bundy trade, are actually Rule 5 draft-eligible for the first time this year. The Orioles left them unprotected since both are within six months of Tommy John surgery. I’d be surprised if either is selected next month, but once you’re eligible, you keep being eligible, so if these guys come back from surgery looking good, they’ll be 40-man candidates next November.
Brnovich was on a good trajectory after 2021, striking out 123 batters across 95 innings between Aberdeen and Bowie, but he needed the TJ after only two starts this season, so we didn’t get much of a chance to see what he could do for Norfolk. Peek’s surgery was later in the season. He might have less of a chance to show the Orioles, or other teams, what he’s got. A couple of years ago, the O’s left reliever Zach Pop exposed to the Rule 5 draft as he was coming back from TJ and they lost him in the draft.
When I wrote this same article a year ago, my prediction was that Adley Rutschman and Grayson Rodriguez would already be on the 40-man roster, with Drew Rom, Kyle Stowers, and Kyle Brnovich as definite additions, and Joey Ortiz as a “depending on how he returns from injury” choice. There was no predicting Denoyer’s ascent, just like how two years ago you wouldn’t have imagined the arrival of Félix Bautista.
My guess for this time next year is that the Orioles will add Kjerstad, Haskin, and Hernaiz to the 40-man roster. Someone who’s optimistic about the pitchers could think Watson, Pinto, or Brnovich will fit into the picture as well. At this moment, Pinto feels most likely to me. And again, I think Westburg will either be on the O’s already or with a different organization.
One thing that stands out here for me compared to the last couple of years is there’s not a completely obvious pitcher to add. That’s mostly because Dan Duquette used his last two first round picks on pitchers (DL Hall and Rodriguez) whereas Elias has not drafted and signed a pitcher earlier than the fifth round. A surprise reliever could emerge from somewhere.
Adding four or more players at this time next year would require some turnover on the roster between now and then. At present, there are no players who will become free agents after the 2023 season, so the O’s don’t have any freebies like they did heading into this offseason when four players hit free agency. That could change as the offseason goes along. Some 40-man dead weight remains, but there’s a lot less than there used to be.