How he arrived: Rule 5 draft selection made on 12/7/22
Some year in Birdland, there will be an offseason where a Rule 5 draft pick isn’t one of the only bits of Orioles news there is to discuss. Many of us, myself included, talked ourselves into believing this year would be that year. The signings of Kyle Gibson and Adam Frazier are not enough to push this year’s Rule 5 guy Andrew Politi off the front page, and it doesn’t seem like there will be any subsequent signings to do this either.
By the nature of the pool of players available, the Rule 5 draft is generally a lower-ceiling affair. Teams protect their eligible potential high-impact guys. It’s not entirely the province of bottom-feeders and bargain bin hunters, though. While many playoff teams from 2022 passed in the draft, five of this year’s playoff clubs picked a guy. With modest luck, you can get a useful roleplayer in the vein of Ryan Flaherty. With more luck, Tyler Wells is polished into a useful back-end guy with starter potential.
Enter Politi to see where he will fit in the history of the Orioles making Rule 5 picks. One thing that separates him from some of the pointless Rule 5 adventures of the past decade or so is that Politi isn’t having to make a huge leap to the MLB level. He was pitching at Triple-A for more than half of last season. That’s important because with the O’s having won 83 games last year, they ought to be at a point where they’re looking for immediate results and not banking on long-term development plays.
The fact that the Orioles have less space to try to hide a fresh rookie Rule 5 guy may be more relevant to what happens with Politi than anything to do with how he pitches or what the team thinks his potential might be. A key part of the O’s bullpen management is rotating players who get optioned to the minors to keep fresh relievers with the team when needed.
Assuming five starting pitchers, the roster can hold eight relievers. We might all think we have a good idea who many of those relievers are now, except this time a year ago we’d have assumed Cole Sulser and Tanner Scott were going to be 2022 bullpen mainstays and they were traded a week before the season. Between the time I started this article and the time I finished it, the Orioles signed up for a reunion with Mychal Givens. No one would have predicted this even a day ago. That’s one more guy whose roster spot is locked down.
For now, it seems like the late-inning high-leverage guys with spots locked should be Félix Bautista, Cionel Pérez, and Dillon Tate. Givens hasn’t pitched like he deserves the role over those guys unless one of them gets hurt or stumbles. Keeping Politi in the picture is still another guy who couldn’t be optioned, leaving three players who might be able to be on a roster merry-go-round.
Will the Orioles limit their roster flexibility at this point now that wins matter? The last time they carried a Rule 5 pitcher, Wells, wins in the current season were not, as Mike Elias once infamously stated, strategically relevant. They could be more patient with someone who might need time to adjust than they can be now.
Politi was enough of a prospect to get a mention on the 51-deep FanGraphs top Red Sox prospect list before last season. He checked in at #46, in the lowest tier of player they rank, the “35+ FV” tier. Several 2022 Orioles relievers were in this same tier on the O’s list: Bautista, Bryan Baker, and Logan Gillaspie.
Get the right guy at the right time and you can get a useful player there. Politi was coming off a rough 2021 where he bounced out of the rotation. Now it’s clear he’s a reliever, potentially a multi-inning guy - he racked up 56 innings in 38 games last year. That’s one thing that could help a Rule 5 player stick on the 2023 Orioles.
Pitching decently or even good would be even better, obviously. Some guys can make the jump from Triple-A and some can’t. Politi certainly had some good results at that level last year, rolling to a 1.018 WHIP (sub-1 if you add in his several Double-A outings) and more than a strikeout per inning pitched for the Sox Triple-A affiliate in Worcester. He kept the walks under control, and kept batters off balance: They hit just .186 for the year.
Politi will be heading into his age 27 season next year. He’s old for a prospect, which is one reason why he was only at #46 on that Sox prospect list and almost certainly why they didn’t protect him from the Rule 5 draft. Boston had three pitchers selected in the draft. Older guys aren’t the guys with untapped upside. They probably are close to what they will be at their best. That doesn’t mean they can’t have value to a team: Bautista and Baker were age 27 rookies in 2022, and Tate posted his first good season at age 28.
In a quick scouting report after the Rule 5, MLB Pipeline’s Jim Callis said that Politi’s arsenal is “a mid-90s fastball, mid-80s slider, an upper-80s cutter and a low-80s curveball.” Another evaluator, Baseball America’s JJ Cooper, praised the pick in an interview with MASN’s Steve Melewski. Cooper said “if I were looking for a player in this year’s Rule 5 draft, Politi is one of the ones that most stands out (to fit into a bullpen).”
Another thing that works in Politi’s favor, according to Cooper, is his size. In a previous era of baseball, you wanted tall pitchers who were throwing on a downhill plane, and Politi is only 6’0”. However, Cooper noted that can turn back to Politi’s advantage these days, when what’s valued are elevated fastballs that batters have a harder time hitting for home runs. A shorter pitcher whose fastball has a flatter plane can keep the ball elevated better. If Politi makes the Orioles, we’ll be seeing if he can pull off that trick against MLB-level hitters next year.
Tomorrow: Adam Frazier