Now that free agency is officially under way, the next important thing for teams to sort out in baseball’s offseason is which minor league players will be added to the 40-man roster to protect them from this year’s Rule 5 draft. The deadline for teams to add new players to keep them out of the draft is Monday. The Orioles have between now and then to figure out who they want to keep other teams from swiping from them.
Players who are newly-eligible for the Rule 5 draft this year are, generally, 2018 international (July 2, now January 15) signings, 2019 high school draft picks, and 2020 college draft picks or undrafted free agents signed after that shortened raft. Any player who was eligible last year is eligible again this year, so if there are any late bloomers, teams will have to think about those guys as well.
The good news for the Orioles is that they aren’t going to have any tough high-profile choices to make. This time a year ago, I looked at the prospects whose eligibility would come up this year. The ones who seemed like the most likely candidates were outfielders Heston Kjerstad and Hudson Haskin, and infielders Darell Hernaiz and Jordan Westburg.
The bad news for the Orioles is that if they do end up with some other players who they want to add, they’re going to need to prune some dead weight to fit them on. After five free agents departed and three 60-day injured list players were re-added to the roster, the O’s 40-man stands at 38. More than two additions would take someone else being removed.
Each of Kjerstad and Westburg joined the Orioles during the 2023 season, so they’re already onto the 40-man roster well ahead of the deadline. Hernaiz was traded to the Athletics for Cole Irvin. Oakland will have to add him, which I assume they will after he OPSed .841 between Double- and Triple-A in his age 21 season.
There are a swath of other players eligible, ranging from early Elias draft picks like catcher Maverick Handley, early Elias trade acquisitions like Noelberth Romero, and previous minor league Rule 5 picks like Nolan Hoffman.
This article will not be covering every longshot and no shot. I do want to highlight some others who either seem like interesting cases now or seemed interesting before even if they’ve come up short now.
Haskin, who the O’s selected in the second round of the 2020 draft is the one player of that quartet who they’ll still have to decide on. A year ago, he seemed like he might be in line to slide in to Ryan McKenna’s fourth outfielder spot on the team. His 2023 season did not keep him clearly on that path, as he battled injury issues and ultimately played only 23 games at the Triple-A level, the next one he needs to master.
In that small sample size, the results were fine, with a .268/.368/.463 batting line for Haskin. There’s just not much of a track record to go on. Still, he seems like a player who the Orioles should protect just to see what happens if he gets healthy next year. No point in letting some other team get the benefit if things come together for Haskin. Being added is not a guarantee of a long stay or any Orioles appearance at all. Just ask last year’s additions, Noah Denoyer and Drew Rom.
Watson was the winner of the Orioles Jim Palmer Minor League Pitcher of the Year award for the 2022 season, in which he posted a 3.44 ERA between Bowie and Norfolk in 107.1 innings. In his age 25 season at Triple-A this year, Watson was not able to follow up with quality, finishing with a 5.95 ERA over 34 games pitched. His high strikeout and low walk rates from lower minor league levels did not translate to facing more advanced batters. Unless the Orioles saw something promising in the peripheral data, it’s hard to see why they’d worry about protecting Watson.
Turning 23 in January, the 5’11” righty Pinto was acquired by the Orioles in the José Iglesias trade. Had some interesting results in 24 games with Aberdeen last year, though not enough to get promoted to Double-A to start this season. Pinto started off in High-A and eventually made it to Double-A Bowie. He was substantially better at Aberdeen (2.75 ERA, 12.6 K/9, 1.108 WHIP) than he was at Bowie (3.72 ERA, 8.7 K/9, 1.517 WHIP), though that Bowie sample was only against a bit more than half as many batters.
Young enough that you don’t want to give up on him, but at the same time, the Orioles are running out of space to carry guys like this on their 40-man. He’s not immediately ready to help the big league team and we saw this year that even a 101-61 O’s team is going to need to make use of a lot of its 40-man space to get through the season. Pinto has been passed up on prospect rankings by some more recent additions like Cade Povich, Chayce McDermott, and Alex Pham, all of whom won’t be Rule 5 eligible until next year.
Kyle Brnovich / Zach Peek
These two pitchers who arrived in the Dylan Bundy deal were Rule 5 eligible last year, but both were coming off of Tommy John surgery and weren’t likely to be selected, so they weren’t added. Brnovich, 26, only pitched eight games this season as he dealt with injuries even after his rehab. Peek, 25, pitched in five, in addition to being assigned to the Arizona Fall League.
With better health or results, either might have been in the picture, but I don’t see why they would be with the way things went this season.
A common trend over the last two years of Orioles Rule 5 draft additions is a reliever being protected who you might not have thought much about before that season. Two years ago, this was Félix Bautista and last year it was Denoyer. McGough, a 25-year-old who arrived in last year’s minor league Rule 5 draft, could be a candidate for that if it happens again this year.
This 6’3” lefty only got into seven games this season, and it seems like the Orioles sent him to the Arizona Fall League to both give him some reps and evaluate him before the Rule 5 decision. He was selected to the AFL’s Fall Stars Game with a seven game stint that’s seen him strike out 12 batters in nine innings.
In this space roughly a year ago, my prediction was that the Orioles would add Kjerstad, Haskin, and Hernaiz to the 40-man roster, with Westburg having already either arriving with the Orioles or being traded before then. I thought Watson, Pinto, and Brnovich would be possible candidates as well, with Pinto as the most likely of the three to be added. As it turned out, Hernaiz was traded and each of Kjerstad and Westburg hit the roster already.
I’ve had worse takes on this site. Looking at it now, I think the Orioles will add Haskin and Pinto to fill the two currently open spots and that will be it. However, Mike Elias has surprised me plenty before and could easily do it again. He could trim one of the recent waiver claims, Tucker Davidson or Sam Hilliard. Players who were hurt a lot and struggled when healthy, such as Keegan Akin and Terrin Vavra, could be cuts if there are more players Elias wants to add as well.
Check back next week, after the decisions have been made, for an early look at next year’s much more crowded Rule 5 protection picture.