Orioles protect six players and DFA Núñez (updated)

The Orioles reached the maximum on their 40-man roster this afternoon with the additions of outfielder Yusniel Diaz, infielder Rylan Bannon, and pitchers Michael Baumann, Zac Lowther, Isaac Mattson and Alexander Wells.

To create a spot, the Orioles have designated Renato Núñez for assignment. He led the club in home runs the past two seasons and is eligible for arbitration.

The deadline to set the roster was 6 p.m.

The six players are now protected from the Rule 5 draft, which is held on the final day of the Winter Meetings on Dec. 10. In-person meetings were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias, addressing the media on a Zoom call, said the club wasn’t going to tender Núñez a contract and it made sense to designate him today. Núñez no longer fit on the roster.

The move with Núñez was “a very difficult decision because he’s been such a productive member of our lineup since being claimed in 2018,” Elias said. “He’s been an important part of the club the last couple years. It was a decision that we didn’t make lightly, but upon coming to the conclusion that we weren’t going to arbitration with him, we felt it best to make the move today as we needed to shrink back to 40. And with the designation process it will allow us to continue any possible trade discussions up until the Thanksgiving holiday, so we’ll see where that lands, but we certainly appreciate his contributions here, and wherever he ends up we’ll continue to root for Renato.”

Núñez, 26, would become a free agent if clearing waivers. MLBTradeRumors.com projected his arbitration salary at $2.1 million. He’s hit 43 home runs and slugged .469 the past two summers, but also has a .314 on-base percentage and is prone to lengthy slumps.

His lack of a defensive position and the roster construction also factored into the DFA.

“He’s a productive hitter and we’ve all seen that,” Elias said. “He’s a quality player and a good hitter and a big power threat, and ours is not the ideal roster for him in terms of a fit. We have several players that play the defensive spots that he does and sort of fill that profile for us. This is part of the business of cycling guys in and cycling them out. That’s just kind of what we do.”

Diaz, 24, was the easiest decision for the Orioles. The eighth-ranked prospect in the system per MLBPipeline.com. The jewel of the Manny Machado trade with the Dodgers.

He wasn’t going to be dangled in the draft.

Diaz-Swings-Bowie-Orange-Sidebar.jpgDiaz is a career .278/.355/.440 hitter in four minor league seasons. He appeared in 76 games with Double-A Bowie in 2019 and slashed .262/.335/.472 with 19 doubles, four triples, 11 home runs and 53 RBIs in 322 plate appearances.

The plan to start Diaz at Triple-A Norfolk this summer and promote him to the majors crumbled due to COVID-19. The Orioles will try again, with a vision of putting him in a corner outfield spot.

“It means so much for me,” Diaz said via translator Ramón Alarcón. “I was really hoping for something like this to come true. Now it’s a reality, so now it’s time to work.”

Baumann, the No. 9 prospect and a third-round draft pick in 2017 out of Jacksonville University, is recovering from a flexor mass strain in his right forearm. He suffered the injury at the alternate camp site in Bowie.

Follow-up exams and imaging didn’t reveal any ligament damage and he’s expected to begin throwing early next month.

“As far as my arm goes, it’s been feeling good,” he said. “Been making strides there as far as rehab goes. I think there’s been progress there and I’m looking forward to taking more steps forward.”

Baumann, 25, was a combined 7-6 with a 2.98 ERA and 1.048 WHIP last year in 24 games (22 starts) between Bowie and Single-A Frederick. He struck out 142 batters in 124 innings.

In 59 games over three seasons, Baumann has gone 24-13 with a 2.82 ERA and 1.125 WHIP in 297 innings.

Lowther, 24, was selected in the second round in 2017 out of Xavier University. The organization’s No. 11 prospect made 26 starts with Bowie last summer and went 13-7 with a 2.55 ERA and 1.115 WHIP in 148 innings. He averaged 9.4 strikeouts and allowed only eight home runs.

The left-hander is 23-13 with a 2.26 ERA and 1.018 WHIP in three minor league seasons and he’s averaged 10.5 strikeouts per nine innings.

“I did everything I could to put myself in a good position,” Lowther said. “I was confident in what I had produced in the past couple of years, so I felt like I did everything I could. In the back of my mind there was still that, I don’t know what the organization is going to do. These things are always kind of nerve-racking for any player, so to be selected, that gives me a lot of confidence. It’s really exciting for me and my wife and everyone around me. It was really cool and definitely a long time coming.”

Mattson, 25, appeared to be sitting on the bubble. He didn’t get called up to the majors after his assignment to the alternate camp site, but is viewed as a potential bullpen piece in 2021.

The Orioles acquired Mattson and pitchers Kyle Bradish, Zach Peek and Kyle Brnovich from the Angels on Dec. 4, 2019 for starter Dylan Bundy.

Mattson, a 19th-round pick in 2017 out of the University of Pittsburgh, made a combined 37 relief appearances between Single-A-Inland Empire, Double-A Mobile and Triple-A Salt Lake last year and went 6-3 with a 2.33 ERA and a 1.009 WHIP. He averaged 13.5 strikeouts per nine innings and opponents batted .184.

Assigned to the Arizona Fall League, Mattson further intrigued scouts by allowing two earned runs and striking out 12 batters in 10 2/3 innings.

“I think the main reason that we wanted to put him in that deal package was his success in the minor leagues, particularly in 2019,” Elias said. “Very, very high strikeout rates and he zoomed up three levels in 2019. He’s got attractive numbers, and that’s attractive to other teams and attracted us to him.

“He was at our alternate site this summer. It’s a 94-96 mph fastball with a lot of hop and he’s got his slider and a changeup that he can use to lefties. He’s the type of relief pitcher that can go more than three outs if needed, which is nice, and now we’ve got a close-to-major-league-ready, optionable relief pitcher on the 40-man roster. I think we may very well see him get some action in Camden Yards (next) year.”

Bannon, 24, also came to the Orioles in the Machado trade. He plays second and third base and reached the Triple-A level in 2019.

“He’s going to be in the mix,” Elias said. “He’s on the roster and he’s coming to major league spring training, and I imagine we’re going to have some competition for any number of jobs in the infield. He’s a guy who can move around. I think if you ask what his best position is you might get some different opinions whether it’s second base or third base, which I think is a good thing, it’s interesting. But ultimately it’s about the bat with him.

“He’s had a really terrific minor league career. He’s got power. Our hitting coaches who worked with him at the Bowie camp really liked him. Same at instructional league. He’s just been a popular guy. I think he was a good get in the trade in 2018. While he wasn’t the headliner in that trade, we value him highly and I have very little doubt that had he been exposed in this draft, I think he would have been taken.

“He was always somebody that we were counting on getting into our infield mix for 2021, and if he ends up spending the lion’s share of time in Triple-A that will be good for him, too, because he hasn’t gotten the opportunity to play there because of the pandemic.”

Wells, 23, wasn’t placed in the 60-man pool over the summer, in part due to travel restrictions. The native of Australia was 8-6 with a 2.95 ERA and 1.070 WHIP in 24 starts last year with Bowie.

Wells has averaged 1.4 walks per nine innings in four minor league seasons.

“He would have been a candidate for inclusion in the alternate site, but we talked to him, he had a really good setup in Australia and we just decided to stick with that,” Elias said. “He’s very likely to pitch some winter ball over there (Australia), as well.

“This is a guy that flies a little bit under the radar in our system, but his minor league success has been crazy so far. He’s dominated. He has elite command and he’s got a pretty good curveball and a nice cutter/slider that he’s been working on. I think that the reason we were determined to protect him this time around is we view him as a potential starting pitcher. That’s a valuable asset. And once again, this is a guy that’s knocking on the door right now, so if called upon this year he could potentially come up and help the team. But ultimately we just didn’t want to risk losing him.

“Again, this is a strange year to make these decisions because he didn’t pitch in the United States all year and a team would be selecting him knowing that they’d have to keep him on the major league team all year, but we weren’t confident enough thinking that would be a deterrent, and we want to keep developing Alex and we want him to sink or swim as a big leaguer here with the Orioles.”

Among the eligible players left unprotected were pitchers Zach Pop and Cody Sedlock and infielder Mason McCoy.

Sedlock also was exposed last year and stayed in the organization. He was the 27th overall pick in the 2016 draft.

Pop is recovered from Tommy John surgery in 2019.

Teams are able to claim unprotected players for a $100,000 fee.

Elias said he considered a few more players for the 40-man.

“Definitely one or two more that we really went back and forth on as a group,” he said. “It’s always a tough process and we get opinions and input from every corner of the baseball ops department, coaching staff, everybody. It’s a long debate and I think that we landed on the outcome that we feel gives us the best chance to retain talent in this organization. Not just these players but future acquisitions and other uses of the 40-man roster.

“We also have to keep in mind that this is not about preventing players from being selected in the Rule 5 draft. Other teams have to keep them on the major league roster all year and so it’s very possible that we may have players selected that we would hope would return to us. So it’s a long process, we’ll see where it goes. It’s never easy, especially this year with so much uncertainty still surrounding the rules. We played with expanded rosters last year and a 60-game season and nobody saw that coming. I highly doubt we’re going to have anything like that in 2021. I think it’s going to be, if not totally normal rules and schedule, very, very close to that, but there’s still a little added degree of uncertainty.

“We don’t know if the National League DH, where that’s going to land for 2021. There’s still some balls in the air that, from a regulatory standpoint, make some of these decisions a little trickier than they already are.”

The Orioles placed pitchers Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer, outfielder/first baseman Ryan Mountcastle and outfielder Ryan McKenna on the 40-man prior to last year’s Rule 5 draft. Only McKenna failed to make his major league debut after working out at the alternate camp site.

Elias was a tad busier today.

“Obviously, we’re very pleased to be graduating, so to speak, six players from our farm system onto our 40-man roster,” he said. “It’s just an important step closer to these guys contributing to the major league team. These types of decisions are always difficult. One thing that really helped and made it easier with this group is we feel that each of these six guys will be able to contribute in 2021 if called upon by the major league team. These are guys who have either already played in Triple-A or would have played in Triple-A had we had it this year, so while they are not finished products, they’re developed enough to be functional members of the roster this year, and I think that makes these decisions easier.”

Note: The Athletics’ 11 spring training non-roster invites include former Orioles minor league pitcher Cristian Alvarado, who signed as a free agent earlier in the week.

Alvarado wasn’t placed in the Orioles’ 60-man player pool or invited to the fall instructional camp, but he made 40 relief appearances with Bowie in 2019 and registered a 2.66 ERA and 0.928 WHIP with 13 saves in 74 1/3 innings. Opponents batted .189.

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