SARASOTA, Florida—The Orioles need starting pitching and with their best prospects not ready for the major leagues, they need to look at unusual avenues to find candidates.
In December, the Orioles continued their tradition of looking for hidden gems in the Rule 5 draft by selecting two right-handed pitchers — Brandon Bailey, from the Houston Astros, and Michael Rucker, from the Chicago Cubs.
Bailey, who was selected second, and Rucker, the 11th and final selection, are being given a chance to make the team, perhaps as starters.
Bailey, 25, was 4-5 with a 3.30 ERA for Double-A Corpus Christi last season. He pitched in 22 games, 17 of them starts. He’s trying to make a positive impression.
“I think it starts honestly with being a good teammate,” Bailey said. “Going about my business the right way, showing up early, getting all my work early when it needs to be done, showing support of my other teammates, and being present in the moment.
“Obviously with the Rule 5 thing, I’ve got to be on the team going out of camp, or I go back. For me, I think it’s a great opportunity to showcase what I can do at the highest level. I think the way I earn these guys’ respect is working hard, keeping tunnel vision and helping us win today’s game. That’s all I can focus on.”
In December 2018, the Orioles had the first selection in the draft and picked shortstop Richie Martin, who spent the season with the club. They also grabbed infielder Drew Jackson, who was with the club for just a week.
Both Bailey, who was drafted by Oakland and traded to Houston in November 2017, and Rucker came from organizations that had strong farm systems.
“With Houston, there’s so much talent over there, top to bottom,” Bailey said. “If you look at their big league roster last year with Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke. The list goes on and on of the good pitchers that are over there. That’s just the big leagues, and our Triple-A team was extremely talented last year.”
Bailey tried not to get discouraged.
“In Double-A, guys like Jose Urquidy, Bryan Abreu, guys who made it up to the big leagues last year, started with us in Double-A. It goes to show how deep the organization is. Yes, it was sometimes discouraging being in Double-A the entire season. At the same time, I understood that was out of my control, and all I could control was taking it one game at a time and trying to help my team win, and that was where my focus was.”
Rucker’s story is similar. He was at Double-A Tennessee last year but didn’t start a game, though he served as a “piggy-back” starter who followed the starter with multiple innings. He was 0-3 with a 4.28 ERA in 34 games, and had four innings at Triple-A Iowa.
Rucker also is trying to make it at 25.
“Versatility is probably the biggest thing,” Rucker said. “I’ve started, I’ve relieved. I’ve gone as short as two-thirds of an inning, shutting down guys, to pitching eight innings as a starter as recently as 2017, being stretched out and being a starter throughout all of 2018 at the Double-A level. I think versatility is definitely what I bring. I can eat innings. You can put me in situations, and I can help you out.”
Bailey and Rucker understand the business and political aspects of the game.
“They were really trying to win a championship,” Rucker said. “Having some more veteran pitchers, studs they brought in to pitch innings. It wasn’t frustrating for me. I understood what was going on, and I tried to focus on the process.
“This is something I’ve always had in the back of my mind throughout my minor league career. There are 30 teams, so if I do my thing, and I do my best thing, there’s an opportunity waiting for me. I think this here, being drafted Rule 5, is the first of many of them.”
Rucker, who threw a scoreless inning in his first outing on Sunday, calculated the odds of being taken in the draft.
“It was something that coming into the offseason, knowing that it was my first year of eligibility for Rule 5, that it was a possibility,” Rucker said.
“Especially after November 20 when the Cubs decided not to protect me and put me on their 40-man. I had some hope that I had put together enough of a resume over the course of my minor league career, especially my second half of 2019. I was super excited about this opportunity, just completely elated to hear my name be called, and I intend to make the most of this opportunity.”
Bailey, who allowed a run on three hits in the two innings preceding Rucker, stands out in the Orioles’ clubhouse. Though he’s listed at 5 feet 10, he’s really just 5-7.
That doesn’t bother manager Brandon Hyde.
“It’s not the usual bigger stature pitcher, but there’s a lot of guys that are a little shorter who are successful in the big leagues,” Hyde said. “We’re excited about his pitch mix.”
Bailey identifies with smaller athletes. In high school as a Denver Nuggets fan, his first autograph was from 5-5 guard Earl Boykins.
“I guess I shrunk during that offseason,” Bailey said. “I measure 5-7. I always thought I was 5-foot-9. Maybe that was with my tall shoes on.”