The Orioles kicked off the 2019 season in New York over the weekend, and fans who haven’t kept a close eye on the club might have needed a scorecard. The club’s Opening Day roster included just nine holdovers from last year’s season-opening squad.
That’s the kind of turnover not seen in Baltimore in some time. In the eight openers under former manager Buck Showalter, the Orioles always had at least 10 returning players from the previous year’s opening roster. The most holdovers came in 2017, when the Opening Day roster included 17 of the same players as the 2016 opening club.
That relative year-to-year stability has changed under new general manager Mike Elias and manager Brandon Hyde. The roster reshuffling is especially apparent on the offensive end, where just two position players, Chris Davis and Trey Mancini, have returned from last Opening Day. In fact, only four of the Orioles’ active position players were in the organization at this time last season: Davis, Mancini, Joey Rickard (who started 2018 at Triple-A Norfolk) and Cedric Mullins (who began at Double-A Bowie).
The Opening Day starting lineup had a much different look than last year with its two lone holdovers. It was the fifth time in Orioles history that consecutive Opening Day lineups had two or fewer players in common. That hadn’t happened since 2004, when the Orioles’ opening lineup returned just one starter, right fielder Jay Gibbons, from the previous Opening Day.
During the glory days of Orioles baseball, it wasn’t uncommon for the club to use nearly the same opening lineup for years. From 1966-71, for instance, five players appeared in every Opening Day lineup: Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Boog Powell, Paul Blair and Davey Johnson, all members of the Orioles’ Hall of Fame.
The changes to the Orioles aren’t going to stop this year. It’s possible the Orioles could have plenty of new faces for the 2020 opener. Although only one active Oriole, Andrew Cashner, is eligible for free agency after the season, it’s likely that a number of players on this year’s opening roster may not be long for the club.
As Elias and his staff work to improve the talent level throughout the organization, expect to see them gradually cast off their veteran roster fillers and call up young players when they’re deemed ready. By this time next year, prospects such as Austin Hays, Yusniel Diaz and Ryan Mountcastle could be lineup fixtures for the Orioles.
With any luck, the Orioles’ lineups could become more stable within the next few years, full of talented, homegrown players who remain in the lineup year after year. Just like the days of yore.
Cashner’s unlikely opener
After Alex Cobb’s groin strain forced him to miss his scheduled Opening Day start, Cashner was given the opening assignment. He didn’t pitch well, allowing six runs and failing to record an out in the fifth inning.
Cashner had a 5.29 ERA for the Orioles last year. In case you’re wondering, yes, that was the worst previous-season ERA for any Opening Day starting pitcher in Orioles history. But it was closer than you might think.
In 2012, Jake Arrieta was given the Orioles’ Opening Day assignment after posting a 5.05 ERA in 2011. Arrieta justified the decision by working seven shutout, two-hit innings against the Minnesota Twins, one of the finest outings of his tumultuous Orioles career.
In 1986, the club’s starter for the opener was Orioles Hall of Famer Mike Flanagan, a former Cy Young winner who had already put together an excellent 11-year career in Baltimore. Still, he was coming off his worst season, posting a 5.13 ERA in 1985. Flanagan struggled in that opener, giving up five runs in two innings in a loss to Cleveland.
Perhaps the Orioles’ unlikeliest Opening Day starter, though, was Scott Erickson in 2002. At the time of the assignment, the veteran right-hander hadn’t thrown a pitch in the majors for nearly two years, having missed the entire 2001 season because of an elbow injury. Before that, he’d been blasted for a 7.87 ERA in 16 starts in 2000. But Erickson, who by 2002 was nearing the end of an ill-fated five-year extension with the Orioles, was the most established veteran in the rotation, earning him the Opening Day nod. He outdueled Yankees ace Roger Clemens that day, working six innings and allowing just an unearned run.
Rule 5 picks abound on Orioles’ roster
A running joke about former executive vice president Dan Duquette is that Rule 5 draft day was like his Christmas. During his seven-year tenure in Baltimore, Duquette made at least one selection in the Rule 5 draft every season, and five in his last two years. No other team was as active.
But even with Duquette gone, Elias is following in the footsteps of his predecessor and continuing the Rule 5 tradition. The Orioles, for the second straight year, placed three Rule 5 picks on the Opening Day roster: infielders Richie Martin and Drew Jackson and right-hander Pedro Araujo.
The Orioles selected Martin from Oakland with the first pick of the Rule 5 draft last December, and acquired Drew Jackson, who had been selected by the Philadelphia Phillies from the Los Angeles Dodgers, for international signing bonus money. Both must stay on the Orioles’ roster all season or be offered back to their original teams. Araujo, meanwhile, is a leftover from Duquette’s final Rule 5 draft in 2017. He didn’t accrue enough service time in 2018 to fulfill his Rule 5 requirements, suffering a season-ending elbow sprain in early June. He needs to spend the first 17 days on the Orioles’ roster this year before he becomes optionable.
Last Opening Day, the Orioles’ Rule 5 picks included Araujo, left-hander Nestor Cortes Jr. and outfielder Anthony Santander, a holdover from the 2017 season who needed 44 more days on the roster to shed his Rule 5 status. By the All-Star break, none was on the Orioles’ active roster. Cortes was returned to his original team, the Yankees, after four disastrous big league appearances in April. Araujo was on the disabled list. And Santander, after reaching his 44 required days, was optioned to the minors, never to return that season.
Carrying even one Rule 5 pick comes with its share of risks. The players, some of whom are plucked from the low minors, are often overmatched in their first taste of the big leagues, and the team can be hamstrung by the roster inflexibility. Carrying three Rule 5 picks amplifies those risks. That’s why it’s hardly ever done.
But it’s not unprecedented. Before the Orioles, three clubs in the last 20 years have put a trio of Rule 5 picks on their Opening Day roster.
In 2002, the perennially cellar-dwelling Tampa Bay Devil Rays, who’d lost 92 or more games in all four of their previous seasons as a franchise, went whole hog on Rule 5 picks. Their Opening Day roster included right-hander Jorge Sosa, lefty Steven Kent and infielder Felix Escalona. All had been picked by other teams in the 2011 Rule 5 draft and then claimed off waivers by Tampa Bay. (The Devil Rays’ own pick in that draft, right-hander Kevin McGlinchy, never pitched for the club because of injury.)
All three players managed to make it through the season with the Devil Rays, but none was a key contributor. Escalona (.217 average, .555 OPS in 2002) played just 25 more games after that year, last appearing in the majors at age 26. Kent (0-2, 5.65 ERA) never pitched in the majors again. Only Sosa (2-7, 5.53) lasted any significant time in the majors, pitching for nine years, but his best season came with the Atlanta Braves in 2005. The Devil Rays, with those three Rule 5 picks, finished a franchise-worst 58-103 in 2002.
That futility was no match for the 2003 Detroit Tigers, whose 119 losses were the second-most in modern MLB history. That club, too, carried three Rule 5 selections, all pitchers: lefty Wil Ledezma (the Tigers’ own pick in the 2002 Rule 5 draft) and right-handers Matt Roney and Chris Spurling (acquired from other teams after the draft).
Again, the club was able to carry the three all season. Ledezma, Roney and Spurling combined for a 5-19 record and 5.33 ERA in 2003. Ledezma spent parts of five seasons in the Tigers’ bullpen and remained in the majors until 2011. Roney and Spurling were out of big league baseball within four years.
Finally, in 2017, the San Diego Padres scooped up the top three selections in the 2016 Rule 5 draft, picking one (utility man Allen Cordoba) and swinging trades for the other two (right-hander Miguel Diaz and catcher Luis Torrens). None of the three had played above the Single-A level, and it showed. Torrens batted .163 in 56 games; Cordoba, .208 in 100 games. Diaz had a 7.43 ERA in 31 appearances.
Still, the Padres stuck to their experiment, hanging on to the trio for a season in which they went 71-91. Two years later, all three are still in the Padres’ organization, with Torrens and Cordoba playing at the High-A level in 2018 and Diaz splitting time between the majors, Double-A and Triple-A.
What conclusions can we draw? One takeaway is that those who carry three Rule 5 picks at once tend to be really, really bad teams. That’s not a surprise, and the 2019 Orioles may, ultimately, fall into the category. But that fact makes it especially bizarre that the 2018 Orioles, who had designs on being a contending team, took the gamble of carrying three Rule 5 picks on Opening Day. Perhaps it should have been an omen that their season would take a turn for the worse.
It’s also worth noting that most of those Rule 5 players, ultimately, didn’t develop into much, though the jury is still out on the Padres’ trio. While those struggling teams were willing to sacrifice some roster versatility to try to add talent through the Rule 5 draft, the gambles were, for the most part, unsuccessful.
Will the Orioles be able to coax successful major league careers out of Martin, Jackson and/or Araujo? Time will tell, but the odds may be stacked against them.