One of the many unknowns about the 2021 season is the roster size. Last year, the roster was supposed to be 26, one more than it had been for decades, because of Covid-19. However, once the 60-game season started, it was 30 for the first two weeks and scheduled to be 28 for the next two weeks before dropping to 26 for the remaining month of the season.
After seeing how many players were unavailable early in the season because of injuries and the pandemic, the roster remained at 28.
If Major League Baseball decides that the roster will again be higher than 26 for 2021, that could change the Orioles’ way of constructing their roster.
In December 2019, the team selected two right-handed pitchers, Brandon Bailey and Michael Rucker, in the Rule 5 draft. But on March 6, the Orioles returned Bailey to the Houston Astros and Rucker to the Chicago Cubs, the teams from which they were drafted.
Executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias saw that Bailey and Rucker couldn’t make the Orioles. Elias had no way of knowing that six days later, on March 12th, that Covid-19 would halt spring training and that the season wouldn’t start until July 23rd.
With the expanded roster, it could have been possible for the Orioles to keep one, or even both, of the Rule 5 players, but a 30-player roster in late July wasn’t on anyone’s mind when camps came to an abrupt end.
In last month’s Rule 5 draft, the Orioles again selected two right-handed pitchers, Mac Sceroler from the Cincinnati Reds and Tyler Wells from the Minnesota Twins. The Orioles lost right-hander Zach Pop to the Chicago Cubs.
On a 28-man roster, the Orioles could keep as many as 15 pitchers, and there would seem to be a path to retain at least one Rule 5 selection. But with a 26-man roster, and a 13 pitcher limit, it might be a stretch.
The Orioles have 21 pitchers on the 40-man roster. John Means, Alex Cobb, Dean Kremer and Keegan Akin are expected to start.
The fifth starter could be Jorge López or Bruce Zimmermann. Elias might also sign a pitcher or two to a minor league contract, or perhaps a major league one, if it’s a pitcher he covets.
If López or Zimmermann aren’t in the rotation, they could go to the bullpen.
Shawn Armstrong, Paul Fry, Hunter Harvey, Travis Lakins, Tanner Scott, Cole Sulser and Cesar Valdez all pitched for the team last year. Of those, Armstrong, López and Valdez have no options and would be exposed to waivers if the Orioles send them to the minors.
The Orioles like having pitchers with options, but if they’re sent to the minor leagues, they must stay there for 15 days unless they’re replacing an injured pitcher.
Other interesting choices could be right-handers Ashton Goudreau, claimed on waivers from Pittsburgh, and Isaac Mattson, who was one of four pitchers obtained from the Los Angeles Angels in December 2019 for Dylan Bundy.
The Orioles also have two worthy contenders coming to spring training on minor league contracts — left-hander Fernando Abad and right-hander Thomas Eshelman.
It might be hard for the Orioles to keep three or even four lefties in the bullpen. Fry, Scott and Zimmermann are all left-handed.
Eshelman could be a long-shot candidate as a swingman who could start or relieve.
With a 28-man roster and 10 pitchers, it seems plausible that the Orioles could keep Sceroler, whose highest level was High-A in 2019, or Wells, who appeared in six games in Double A two years ago.
In a 13-pitcher scenario, keeping one or both seems difficult.
The Orioles would have to keep Sceroler or Wells on the active roster for at least 90 days in 2021 to fulfill their Rule 5 requirements. They could be placed on the injured list but couldn’t be sent to the minors.
In December 2018, the Orioles had first choice in the Rule 5 draft and selected shortstop Richie Martin from Oakland.
Martin, who went directly from Double-A to the majors in 2019, was challenged offensively, hitting just .166 with a .507 OPS in the season’s first half before rebounding to a .284 average and .713 OPS in the second half.
In a conventional 162-game season, the Orioles likely would have sent Martin to Triple-A Norfolk to play shortstop and work on his hitting. But in summer camp, Martin broke his right wrist diving back to first base and missed the season.
They could have used him with José Iglesias missing time because of injuries.
It’s likely the Orioles will sign another shortstop, leaving Martin to battle for a major league job in 2021. In 2019, they found out how difficult it was to keep a Rule 5 position player on a 25-man roster.