Taking a last look at possible protections in Rule 5 draft

The Orioles’ 40-man roster is holding at 32 players and must be set by Friday, before a Rule 5 draft at the Winter Meetings that remains in limbo, as well as Orlando, with the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement.

Executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias will complete the task of protecting players, which follows the many transactions that cleared room for them.

There will be the obvious calls and probably at least one that seems possible but falls a little short of a lock.

Six players joined the 40-man roster last November at the deadline, with Renato Núñez sent packing on the same day to accommodate the load. Three were absolute no-brainers in outfielder Yusniel Diaz and pitchers Zac Lowther and Mike Baumann. They were joined by pitchers Isaac Mattson and Alexander Wells and infielder Rylan Bannon.

Wells tended to get downgraded because he remained in Australia rather than throwing at the alternate camp site and the fall instructional camp. Elias noted how Wells tended to fly under the radar.

Infielder/outfielder Ryan Mountcastle and pitchers Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer were the three obvious choices among four players protected in 2019. Outfielder Ryan McKenna was more of a bubble guy.

We’re a long way from November 2018 and how the previous regime protected only one player, reliever Dillon Tate. But much of that work already was done in September with outfielder DJ Stewart and pitcher John Means added to the active roster. Reliever Branden Kline was added in late October with minor league free agency approaching.

Pitchers Josh Rogers, Cody Carroll and Luis Ortiz, acquired in trades during the July 2018 teardown, already had made their debuts.

The 40-man was full before the 2018 roster deadline, which forced the Orioles to part with infielder Engelb Vielma by designating him for assignment.

No machinations are necessary this week. The Orioles aren’t likely to protect more than eight players.

They can hack away at the roster later if, for whatever reason, they have fewer than two openings to make selections in the Rule 5 or hand out major league contracts in free agency.

Hall-Throws-White-Bowie-Sidebar.jpgThe Orioles appear to have four locks this week, led by left-hander DL Hall, their No. 3 prospect, per multiple outlets. They just need to keep him healthy after his 2021 season with Double-A Bowie was cut short by a stress reaction in his left elbow. He was shut down in 2019 due to a Grade 1 lat strain.

Hall is expected to be joined by pitchers Kyle Bradish and Kevin Smith and infielder Terrin Vavra - all of them trade acquisitions since Elias entered the front office. Bradish arrived from the Angels in the Dylan Bundy trade, Smith from the Mets in the Miguel Castro deal and Vavra from the Rockies for Mychal Givens.

Here’s where it gets murky.

I’m guessing that one or two more will be added to the 40-man.

Outfielder Robert Neustrom opened eyes, and not just in the Orioles organization, with a .344 on-base percentage, 31 doubles, 16 home runs and 83 RBIs between Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk. What could keep him off the 40-man and vulnerable to selection in the Rule 5 is the depth that the Orioles are accumulating in the outfield. But they’d certainly like to keep him.

They can protect him or keep fingers crossed that he’s bypassed or fails to stick with his new team for an entire season. The way pitcher Gray Fenter found his way back to the Orioles after the Cubs picked him.

Reliever Zach Pop never made it back, going the distance with the Marlins.

Pitchers and position players under consideration this week include Blaine Knight, Ofelky Peralta, Cody Sedlock, Nick Vespi, Félix Bautista, Adam Hall, Cadyn Grenier, Patrick Dorrian, Greg Cullen and Mason McCoy. Sedlock and Peralta already have been unprotected in the past.

Arguments can be made against everyone in this group, whether based on lapses in control, depth at a position that’s caused them to fall behind or just a perception that they’re likely to slip through the Rule 5 cracks.

Hall is the organization’s No. 15 prospect, according to MLBPipeline.com, and the only player in the Top 30 among those who are graded as questionable or unlikely to be protected.

Though they don’t have a catcher on the 40-man roster, I’d be surprised if the Orioles protected Brett Cumberland. But could they select one in the Rule 5?

An intriguing and slightly complicated puzzle is pitcher Brenan Hanifee, a fourth-round pick in 2016 out of Turner-Ashby High School in Virginia who’s only 23 years old.

Hanifee underwent Tommy John surgery in May, the procedure handled by Dr. Keith Meister in Dallas. He also didn’t pitch in 2020 due to the cancellation of the minor league season.

The Orioles didn’t protect him last year and don’t figure to do it this week, but MLBPipeline.com ranked him as the No. 18 prospect in the organization in 2019 after he went 7-3 with a 2.75 ERA and 1.121 WHIP in 12 starts with short-season Single-A Aberdeen in 2017 and 8-6 with a 2.86 ERA and 1.076 WHIP in 23 starts with Single-A Delmarva the following summer.

MLBPipeline.com had him 10th and FanGraphs.com 11th at the beginning of the 2018 season. Scouts liked the hard sink on his fastball, which induced a nice percentage of ground balls, but he’s averaged 5.7 strikeouts per nine innings.

Hanifee was supposed to be the fifth starter at Bowie this summer. He’ll probably get another shot with the Baysox next year.

The Orioles aren’t expected to protect him if they didn’t bother in 2020 and he’s undergone elbow surgery, which seems like a good reason for teams to pass. But the potential remains.

Note: Former Triple-A Norfolk manager Gary Kendall has accepted a job to manage Single-A Palm Beach in the Cardinals’ system. He received a two-year contract.

The Phillies and Nationals also wanted to hire Kendall, who spent more than 20 years in the Orioles organization. Kendall set the Double-A Bowie record with 570 wins and led them to three postseason appearances, including the Eastern League championship in 2015.

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