There were several things of note that happened with the Orioles this weekend – on the positive and negative ledger – but two, somewhat related ones stood out to me.
Outfielder Anthony Santander was sent to Double-A Bowie on Sunday morning.
On Saturday night, right-hander Pedro Araujo had a nightmare of an appearance, giving up two runs on three walks, a hit by pitch and a double while recording only two outs.
The common link here is that Araujo and Santander are both Rule 5 picks – meaning they were players that were not placed on their original clubs’ 40-man roster when contractually eligible and, instead, could be claimed by another organization for $100,000.
The catch is those types of players must stay on the claiming team’s 25-man roster all year or be offered back to the original club for $50,000.
Essentially, it is a cheap way to acquire young and inexpensive talent – and on occasion it pays off (Jose Bautista and Johan Santana are both prominent examples of Rule 5 successes, so there is talent available).
The Orioles, under executive vice president Dan Duquette, are the undisputed kings of the Rule 5 draft. So much so that this season the club went into spring training with a mind-boggling four Rule 5 players: Araujo from the Chicago Cubs, fellow pitchers Nestor Cortes and Jose Mesa Jr., from the New York Yankees and Santander, who was a carryover from the December 2016 Rule 5 draft and the Cleveland Indians.
Choices are great, but that was overkill. Especially since the Orioles ended up taking three Rule 5 picks with them north for Opening Day.
Cortes, a soft-tossing lefty with great minor league numbers, was pounded at the beginning of the season and sent back to New York.
Santander, 23, showed some glimpses of promise, but after going hitless in three at-bats Saturday afternoon, saw his season average drop to .198. He had four hits in 26 May at-bats (.154 average) and only one was an extra-base hit.
Because he fulfilled his final, 44-day requirement in the majors Saturday – he was on the big league DL for a chunk of 2017 – Santander finally could be sent to the minors without passing through waivers. It’s nice to have that kind of power bat in the system.
That leaves Araujo as the last Rule 5 man standing of the four to arrive at spring training. And, frankly, this experiment probably should end now, too.
Araujo entered the nightcap Saturday in the eighth with the Orioles down two runs, 5-3. He immediately gave up two more, and it could have been much worse, but Mike Wright picked up a strikeout with the bases loaded to salvage Araujo’s line.
Araujo’s season ERA has ballooned to 6.86, and he’s allowed earned runs in seven of his last eight outings, including seven runs in his past three appearances spanning 3 1/3 innings.
The Orioles like Araujo’s make up and ability to pitch, but it’s obvious the 24-year-old isn’t ready for the majors. That seemed to be the case before he threw in Sarasota; he had just one game above High-A in his previous seven pro seasons.
Yet the Orioles not only have been forced to use him in the big leagues, but have had him in fairly significant situations, and he hasn’t fared well in most.
“I’ve said many times in the major leagues and the American League, (Rule 5 guys are) going to have to pitch and we still think well of him. He’s got a future. It’s just kind of, unfortunately, you have to be force-fed a little bit up here and I felt for him. It’s tough,” manager Buck Showalter said. “It’s not really his (fault). His experience level is a challenge for him like most guys from his background. And some of them pick it up at different paces and get to the point where they can contribute. So, very much like Anthony Santander. Anthony’s had his really good moments, but it’s challenging for guys with that experience level.”
It’s always fun to read between the lines with Showalter. And that line is this: Rule 5 guys usually aren’t ready for the grind of a season. Because there is no let up, no way to hide someone in the big leagues.
Showalter is used to dealing with Rule 5 guys, of course. He’s done that dance for an entire season with Ryan Flaherty, T.J. McFarland, Jason Garcia, Joey Rickard and now Santander.
And, with the exception of Garcia, they’ve all been contributing major leaguers at some point. The flip side: You are talking about a utility infielder, a middle reliever and outfielders whose ceilings are probably part-time status.
Those are back-end of the roster roles that should include option flexibility and not handcuff a manger’s flexibility.
This is where you could blast Duquette for his obsession with Rule 5 players, but I’ll take a more global stance – quite literally.
This is what happens when you have a non-existent international program. This is what happens when ownership philosophy cuts off a necessary talent pipeline. Not only are there fewer top prospects in such a system, but there are fewer role players available, too.
And that makes a no-stone-unturned talent seeker like Duquette rely too heavily on the Rule 5.
Santander has made it through the gauntlet, and that’s great, though we’ll never know what the exact cost of that decision is.
But Araujo? Certainly, the team doesn’t want to give away a promising arm on a team going nowhere, but the absolute upside here is late-inning reliever. It could take a couple years to get him there. And he turns 25 in July.
You can keep him and keep your fingers crossed on a flawed team, but it’s still a longshot he’ll be anything more than a serviceable pitcher in the future.
The great thing about experiments is if they don’t work, you end them.
One programming note: Monday’s Baltimore Baseball radio show on WOYK 1350 in York, Pa., featured a lengthy interview with Philadelphia Phillies general manager Matt Klentak, who spent four seasons as the assistant to Andy MacPhail with the Orioles from 2008 to 2011. In our talk, Klentak and I discuss the rebuild he has overseen in Philly, the influence his time in Baltimore had on his career as well as why he hired Gabe Kapler and signed Jake Arrieta. Give it a listen below, on the station’s website or download it as a free podcast from iTunes (search BaltimoreBaseball.com).
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