How he arrived: Selected by the Orioles in the fourth round of the 2018 draft; contract selected 11/13/22
Since taking over as general manager of the Baltimore Orioles, there are three things that Mike Elias has never done. First, and increasingly frustrating to many Orioles fans, he has not signed a free agent to a multi-year contract. Second, he has never drafted and signed a pitcher earlier than the fifth round. The third thing is that he has never buttoned the top two buttons of a dress shirt. That last one isn’t relevant to our topic today.
In a world where even draft pick-attached 33-year-old Chris Bassitt can pull down three years at $20+ million per year, the importance of the Orioles developing their own mid-to-back-end starting pitchers is high. It would be nice to not have the O’s of the next couple of years hampered by flaws in the starting rotation, similar to how the 2016 O’s were bruised by having to roll with a rotation that included Yovani Gallardo, Yovani Gallardo, Tyler Wilson, and Mike Wright, with a midseason trade pickup of Wade Miley.
Lefty pitching prospect Drew Rom is an interesting one to consider in the Orioles system because he’s one of a small number of holdover draft prospects still kicking around the minors from the Dan Duquette years, and the only one who didn’t also come with the first-round pick pedigree like D.L. Hall and Grayson Rodriguez. Rom received a slight overslot bonus in the fourth round in 2018, plucked from the high school ranks in Kentucky with no pre-existing prospect hype.
Elias has acquired an army of his own mid-to-late rotation hopefuls since being hired, mostly in sell-off trades of veterans. Kyle Bradish has already made his MLB debut, as has former Rule 5 pick Tyler Wells. They both pitched in the rotation this year. Freshly-arrived hopefuls like Cade Povich and Chayce McDermott will be trying to join them eventually. Again, in between these two groups is Rom. He does not have first-rounder hype, he does not have recency hype, and he’s not a guy the current GM was responsible for bringing in.
One thing that we can say for sure is that the Orioles think highly enough of Rom that they added him to the 40-man roster last month to protect him from this month’s Rule 5 draft. As a 2018 high school pick, he was eligible for the first time this year. He was an obvious name to add to the roster to me, since he’ll only turn 23 years old tomorrow, reached Triple-A this year, and across four seasons in the minors, has struck out 27.7% of all batters faced with a walk rate that’s nearly a quarter of that. That’s a ratio that will play.
The K/BB ratio is something to focus on for Rom because his 2022 season performance, split between Double-A and Triple-A, was not all that interesting if you look only at his ERA. Across the two levels, Rom posted a 4.43 ERA in 120 innings. It’s not an ERA that screams “Promote this guy to MLB now!” And while he kept his strikeout rate high this year, he also saw his walks increase, with free passes issued to nearly 9% of batters this season.
You could just as easily read deeper into his 2022 numbers and predict a turnaround year coming in 2023. One factor of Rom’s 2022 elevated ERA is that he was also allowing an unusually-high BABIP - .374 at Bowie, when in 2021 Rom had a BABIP allowed of .300, a much more typical number.
Was it bad luck plaguing Rom, or maybe a drag from his defense that wouldn’t happen at the MLB level? Or were higher-level batters just doing more damage to him? There’s a case for that too, since Rom saw his ground ball rate fall. It was over 50% in 2021, and below 43% at Bowie this year. Maybe the better competition could just square him up and hit balls harder. This will be worth keeping an eye on for 2023.
Though Rom’s never been at the top levels of Orioles prospect hype, he’s never been a totally anonymous guy either. In our midseason composite O’s prospect ranking, Rom came in as #15 in the system. Among pitchers, he trailed only Hall and fellow recent 40-man addition Seth Johnson. That’s in part because Elias hasn’t been drafting pitchers, but it’s also because Rom deserves some prospect stock for what he’s done and what his talent suggests he’s capable of doing in the future.
The 6’2” Rom often had the word “projectable” applied to him early in his pro career. What the baseball scouting world means when they say that is a player who has a frame with the ability to add strength once the player is dedicated to pro baseball along with filling out physically as he passes from his late teen years into his 20s. For a pitcher, guys like that will have hoped-for velocity bumps in their future, making them more interesting as prospects.
At FanGraphs, Eric Longenhagen wrote before the season that “it looks like the velocity is starting to arrive for Rom”:
...the missing link to a profile that already includes bat-missing fastball shape, natural breaking ball feel, and advanced command. ... (The fastball) has a well above-average spin rate for its velocity, nearly perfect backspin, and a flat angle that makes it tough for hitters to get on top of, and Rom’s arm action is quick and tough to time. An equally important part of Rom’s success to this point has been his breaking ball command. He can vary shape and locate to his glove side, and Rom has a crude split/change with late dive that has a shot to miss bats since arm actions like this tend to eventually yield deceptive changeups.
An extremely dogged optimist could perhaps convince themselves that the Orioles don’t need to be playing around with the four years, $70+ million league-average guys like Jameson Taillon because by late-season next year and for several years after they could have a mid-rotation arm in Rom.
I am not that optimist. I do think Rom has some interesting things going for him, and he’s the less-heralded lefty I’m now interested in after Alexander Wells, the one before him, faded out of the picture. Just think of all the Deep Space Nine references waiting to be made! Rom’s a better prospect now than A. Wells ever was, but there’s still a big gap between what Rom is and top 100-caliber guys.
The Orioles should certainly have their eyes on Rom, and if he’s looking like he deserves a shot, I’m sure he will get one some time in 2023. A non-top 100 prospect pitcher can carve out a nice MLB career. Look no farther than John Means.
Rom’s also got much more going for him as a prospect than the minor league version of Means ever did until his sudden transformation heading into the 2019 season. Rom got a mention in a 32-deep Orioles prospect list on FanGraphs prior to that year. Means, on the cusp of a season where he’d go on to finish as the Rookie of the Year runner-up, didn’t make the cut. Perhaps Rom has more slowly been pulling off a transformation.
Players are not automatically ticketed for a role or even much of an audition with the big league team just because they’ve been added to the 40-man before the Rule 5 deadline. This was demonstrated more than once this season, as past additions Yusniel Díaz and Kevin Smith were dumped as the year went along.
Smith, a lefty like Rom, was outrighted in April, after having been selected only last November. Díaz got a one-game cup of coffee and was outrighted last month. He made it two seasons on the 40-man before being removed. Orioles fans will be hoping that Rom has more in common with Means than he does with Smith.
Up next: Lewin Díaz