As the Orioles decide which players to put on the 40-man roster prior to the Rule 5 draft, they also must consider the increased risks of losing the ones who are left unprotected.
Rosters are expanding to 26 players next season, leaving more room to stash someone at the back of a bullpen or the end of a bench. And more teams are slipping into rebuild mode, placing less emphasis on wins and building the courage to carry a prospect throughout the summer.
Whether or not he’s overmatched.
Without any worries about compromising a pennant race.
“It’s a good point. The 26th roster spot, which is going to go into effect this year, could conceivably make it a little easier for a team to carry a Rule 5 pick,” executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias said earlier this week on the “Hot Stove Show” on 105.7 The Fan.
“We were able to do it this year with Richie Martin and carry him all year, even though his bat wasn’t ready fully for the major leagues. Part of that was because we needed infield depth and we needed a shortstop and his defense was ready. And certainly if something like that exists this year, one of our players could be in danger of it or we be the team that’s looking to do it again.
“I don’t know. We’re still deciding on some guys, but I would guess that we’re going to protect four to five players.”
Pitchers Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer will be included in the group and the former is likely to make his major league debut first in 2020 after completing a full season with Triple-A Norfolk. Kremer could be right behind him.
Meanwhile, the Orioles gladly will take Alex Cobb as an anchor for the rotation, with the veteran expected to be full-go in spring training following hip and knee surgeries over the summer.
Cobb began the season on the injured list, made three starts in April and was done.
“I think you saw this year how much it hurt us not having him,” Elias said. “After we lost him, we were really just scrambling for any semblance of innings, starting pitching, and certainly the vacancy that a veteran like Alex Cobb leaves when he’s hurt, especially with the investment that we have in him, it stings. And so the fact that his (hip) surgery went well ...
“He had a procedure that kind of shaves off some bone in his hip and it was impinging on soft tissue in his hip. He feels great. It’s a pretty simple procedure. We expect that he’ll be fully healthy in that regard. It’s just going to be a matter of how built up his arm is and how many innings he’s going to be able to provide us. But having him back for a number of reasons will be good.
“He had that great first outing against the Yankees at home and I think that’s what he’s capable of when he’s healthy, and hopefully we get that version next year. We expect to.”
Cobb has two years remaining on the four-year, $57 million contract he signed in March 2018. He can be used as a trade chip next summer if he’s healthy and able to replicate his success with the Rays.
The Orioles need more pitching and again have prioritized it in Elias’ second offseason. He’s getting an earlier start this time, with next week’s General Managers Meetings enabling him to gain a better read on the market and how it fits in his budget.
But also without deviating from the rebuild plan and the sacrifices that come with it.
“I do think that we need to have a deep pitching staff in terms of options,” he said. “That doesn’t mean necessarily that we’re going to be shopping at the top of the market by any sense, but we want to have more depth than we went into last year in the event that injuries occur, that we can protect our young pitching prospects who will be coming up.
“But we’re still in the mode of adding talent to this organization, of pumping the minor leagues full of as much talent as we can, and that’s going to be the primary goal. So even though we are short on pitching, we’ve got to keep that in mind from a strategic standpoint and not lose sight of that, even if there’s some short-term cost.”
The infield also requires some tweaking, at the least, with a veteran shortstop on the shopping list.
The middle could need a major overhaul if Martin is optioned and Jonathan Villar is non-tendered or traded.
“I think having some more people who are capable of playing shortstop will make us feel better going into the year,” Elias said.
“Now that’s a tough thing to find. That’s an in-demand position. It’s tough to find in college, it’s tough to find in the draft, it’s tough to find in minor league free agency, it’s tough to find in major league free agency. So we’ll have no shortage of competition looking for those guys, but I think that you’ll see us try to bring in other guys who can add depth in the middle infield and particularly a defensive option at shortstop and bring some of those guys into spring training, hopefully.”