FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Under executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette, the Baltimore Orioles have been the most aggressive team in Major League Baseball in drafting and keeping Rule 5 draft picks.
Since 2012, five of the seven Rule 5 draftees have played for the Orioles, and this year, three pitchers are trying to make the club: left-hander Nestor Cortes, and right-handers Pedro Araujo and Jose Mesa. Cortes and Mesa were drafted from the New York Yankees' organization, and Araujo was a Chicago Cub product.
Manager Buck Showalter saidthere are four spots on the pitching staff open for the fifth starter and three relievers. With the three Rule 5 picks as well are right-handers Mike Wright and Gabriel Ynoa, who started Feb. 25.
"It's pretty easy to see the math," Showalter said. "One would have to go. There are other people competing very closely for those jobs, too. It's not just them. You can make a case that the tiebreaker might go to a Rule 5 guy, but I wouldn't necessarily agree with that."
Cortes started against Minnesota Feb. 24, and allowed one run on a hit in two innings.
The 23-year-old has an advantage because he's the only left-handed candidate among starters. He has a great ability to change speeds, and in his start, threw a sidearm slider that was clocked at just 67 mph.
"It might go lower," Cortes said with a laugh. He noted that he once threw a 47-mph slider that caused the batter to fall down.
Cortes impressed Showalter with his arsenal.
"I don't know if it's deceptive," Showalter said. "He's got a talented hand, he's got some good body control. He's very athletic and he can locate pitches. The thing you can't test analytically, he's got some moxie. He's got a feel for the competition.
"A guy like him ... can't really have an ego about pitching. If he was smug he'd say, 'Check out the numbers.' It's a matter of seeing if it will play at the next levels. He's a guy who is going to do a lot of little things to potentially trust him."
Mesa, the son of the longtime major league pitcher Jose Mesa, who began his big league career with the Orioles, had a difficult debut when he allowed three runs on back-to-back homers in the fifth inning Feb. 25.
The 24-year-old, who is being auditioned as both a starter and reliever for the Orioles, allowed three hits and walked three. One of his two outs came on a caught stealing.
Mesa wasn't protected by the Yankees and closely followed the Rule 5 draft.
"It was my mother's birthday that day and we were praying for it," Mesa said. "I hadn't been protected on the 40-man, so we were praying for it. And when the news came on, me and my dad were both listening and we both got excited. We were like, ‘Man, it's the Orioles. That's where you came up.'"
The senior Mesa pitched 19 seasons for eight teams in the major leagues, the first four for the Orioles, and his son got many chances to watch his father pitch.
"I was the bat boy for a few of the teams, so I got to see him a lot pitching," Mesa said. "It was always exciting. Sometimes, I'd get right next to the manager and the game would be 7-0 and he's the closer and they would be like, ‘Do you think we should put your dad in?' I'm like, ‘Yeah, just put him in.' I didn't care if it was three days in a row. I just wanted to see him pitch."
Araujo, who is 24, has the hardest path. He's pitched only two innings above Class-A while Mesa has had success in Double-A, where he had an 0.79 ERA in eight games last and Cortes has 12 games of Triple-A experience. He threw a scoreless inning, striking out two Feb. 23.
Showalter will have difficult decisions to make. It will be hard for Araujo, Cortes and Mesa to all make the team.
"Mathematically, of course, but it's a challenge to carry three guys unproven at a high level," Showalter said. "You'd have to feel really good about your projection and the ability to survive at that level in that division."
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