When the Orioles acquired outfielder Jaycob Brugman for future considerations last week from the Oakland Athletics and put him on the 40-man roster, the pertinent question wasn’t ‘Who?’
And it wasn’t, “Why?”
No, the most pertinent question was, “Who’s next?”
Because there are going to be several more Brugman types joining the Orioles in the next few weeks, maybe few months. For variety-sake, that can be a good thing, I suppose.
It’s also a bad thing – or at least it points to a bad thing: The Orioles’ lack of minor league talent, especially at the upper levels of the farm system.
The Orioles were able to land Brugman, a left-handed hitting outfielder who’s had some solid success in his pro career so far, because they only had 33 players on their 40-man roster last week.
If you were wondering, yes, that’s a stunningly low number; the lowest in the American League. In fact, only four of the other 14 AL teams have fewer than 37 players on their 40-man: Texas (37), and Los Angeles, Seattle and Minnesota (all at 36).
Five AL teams, the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians, Houston Astros and the A’s, all are at 40 right now.
That means when a team such as the Yankees sign a free agent this winter, it will have to take a player off its 40-man roster. And, certainly, the Orioles and executive vice president Dan Duquette will be aggressive, grabbing players that potentially can help but were victims of roster crunches elsewhere.
Sometimes that works.
Last February, the Orioles sent cash considerations to the Yankees for reliever Richard Bleier, who had been designated for assignment, and Bleier posted a 1.99 ERA in 57 games for the Orioles in 2017.
So that’s the good. And expect Duquette to continue to scan the waiver wire, while also paying close to attention to those arbitration-eligible players from other clubs that are not tendered a contract by Friday’s deadline (The Orioles have seven arb-eligible players this year and all are expected to be tendered). That was how Welington Castillo was able to join the Orioles for 2017.
The concern, though, is why did the Orioles have so many openings on their 40-man roster heading into this offseason? Well, they did have 10 players file for free agency, and that happens with veteran teams. It’s possible none of those 10 come back, though some, such as Chris Tillman, Ryan Flaherty and J.J. Hardy could return if they don’t like their open-market choices.
Many teams clear space through free agency, however. What sets the Orioles apart is that they had 25 percent of their roster leave and really not much talent from within to fortify it.
This month, they added three homegrown players to the roster to protect from the Rule 5 draft. Only one, former first-rounder Hunter Harvey, is considered a high-ceiling prospect. The other two, defensive catcher Austin Wynns and right-hander David Hess, probably wouldn’t have been selected by another organization in December’s Rule 5 draft, but both could be in the Orioles’ plans for 2018. So, adding them now makes some sense.
There were several other players the Orioles could have shielded from the Rule 5 by adding them to the 40-man, but the belief is they weren’t ready to stick an entire year in the majors and so other clubs will pass over them.
There is history on the Orioles’ side with that thinking. The club hasn’t had a drafted/developed player selected in the major league phase of the Rule 5 draft since pitchers Pat Egan and Pedro Beato in 2010 (first baseman Ji-man Choi was taken in 2015, but he had signed with the Orioles weeks earlier as a minor-league free agent).
As much as Duquette likes to talk about the club’s minor league system improving, the lack of recent Orioles’ draftees on the 40-man is disconcerting.
Overall, the Orioles have 18 homegrown players out of 34 on the 40-man, and that’s a solid haul. But eight of those were drafted or signed in 2011 or earlier.
There’s only one player on the Orioles’ 40-man roster from the 2012 draft: Kevin Gausman, who was the fourth overall pick (To be fair, fourth-rounder Christian Walker and 19th rounder Josh Hader are currently on the 40-man rosters of other teams).
The 2013 draft has yielded seven players currently on the 40-man: Harvey, Wynns, catcher Chance Sisco, outfielder Trey Mancini and relievers Jimmy Yacabonis, Stefan Crichton and Donnie Hart. Duquette also traded three others from that draft: pitchers Stephen Tarpley and Steven Brault to the Pittsburgh Pirates in the Travis Snider deal in 2015 and catcher Jonah Heim to Tampa Bay for Steve Pearce in 2016.
So that draft has to be considered an absolute success as far as quantity is concerned, and potentially quality, too.
The next year, though, has yielded little so far. The Orioles didn’t have a first- or second-rounder in 2014 due to the signing of free agents Ubaldo Jimenez and Nelson Cruz. And fourth-rounder Pat Connaughton chose the NBA over his baseball career, at least so far.
Hess, a fifth-rounder, and lefty Tanner Scott, selected in the sixth round, are the only members of the 2014 class on the current 40-man. The rest of the more notable names from that draft — Steve Wilkerson, John Means, Lucas Long – are considered fringe big leaguers and are available for Rule 5 selection.
Compounding the problem is the Orioles’ almost complete dismissal of the international amateur market, which has been an ownership philosophy in place for several years.
The Orioles have one foreign player that they signed and developed on their current 40-man roster, second baseman Jonathan Schoop. The other five, foreign-born players on the current roster were taken from other organizations.
That failure internationally, as I’ve written before, is the primary reason why the Orioles’ system has lagged in recent years. But some of the club’s recent drafts haven’t helped.
If you want to go with a cup half-full, the Orioles have six open spots on their current 40-man roster, and can take chances on some unproven players or acquire more free agents this winter without letting any quality players go. And I’m sure Duquette will fill all of those spots by spring training or much sooner. It’s what he does.
The half-empty thought, however, is that all of those open spots point to other, deeper concerns within the organization.