Will Orioles’ fascination with Rule 5 draft finally pay off?

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If there’s been one absolute with Dan Duquette’s first five offseasons with the Orioles, it’s that the executive vice president of baseball operations is fascinated with the Rule 5 draft.

The December event is used to prevent organizations from hoarding minor-league talent worthy of being on a major league roster, but contending clubs often sit out the proceedings, not wanting to hamstring their 25-man rosters by attempting to carry an inexperienced player for a full season. That obstacle hasn’t stopped the Orioles from coming away with at least one player each winter and successfully keeping a Rule 5 pick in the organization in three of the last four seasons. In 2014, they didn’t carry infielder Michael Almanzar on the 25-man roster, but he was reacquired from Boston later that year.

It’s debatable whether the return has been worth the struggle of playing shorthanded at various times over the last few years while trying to contend. Utility infielder Ryan Flaherty (2012) and left-handed relief pitcher T.J. McFarland (2013) have been useful pieces at times, but you’d be hard pressed trying to argue that players of their ilk aren’t available at minimal cost every winter. The 23-year-old Jason Garcia will be in Double-A Bowie’s starting rotation to begin 2016, so it remains to be seen whether he was worth hiding in a bullpen that lacked flexibility for much of last season.

Will the latest Rule 5 pick, outfielder Joey Rickard, finally bring the kind of return for which the Orioles have been looking?

They certainly hope so as it appears the 24-year-old will not only make the club, but the former Tampa Bay farm product may even begin the season as the starting left fielder, a reflection of his strong spring and a byproduct of the struggles of newcomer Hyun Soo Kim. Entering Tuesday, Rickard was hitting .386 with a .462 on-base percentage and a 1.040 on-base plus slugging percentage in 65 plate appearances.

But are the Orioles jumping the gun on a small sample size?

Buck Showalter has praised Rickard’s abilities throughout the spring and the evaluation extends beyond Grapefruit League results, but the Baltimore manager is also fond of telling reporters how easily you can be fooled by player performance in March when opponents are often using minor leaguers with little chance of playing in the majors that season. Praised for the quality of its farm system for the better part of a decade, Tampa Bay was ranked only 13th in minor-league talent by Baseball America this winter, making you think the Rays could have made room for Rickard on their 40-man roster if they really wanted to.

Were the Rays — not to mention the 13 other clubs eligible to pick before the Orioles in December’s Rule 5 draft — missing something? What haven’t the Orioles discovered about the 2012 ninth-round pick that Tampa Bay might have already known?

Seeing time at high Single A, Double A, and Triple A in 2015, Rickard hit a combined .321 with a .427 on-base percentage and an .874 OPS. He batted .360 with a .909 OPS in his 29 games for Triple-A Durham, his best average of his stints at each level.

Walking 69 times and striking out just 75 times, Rickard also stole 23 bases and played good defense at all three outfield spots.

But the right-handed batter had just two home runs in 480 plate appearances last season. Of course, the Orioles are more intrigued with his ability to get on base and play good defense, but a lack of power can hinder walk totals at the major league level where pitchers aren’t going to be as afraid to challenge a hitter incapable of taking them deep.

It will be interesting to see how the Rickard experiment plays out. At worst, the Orioles hope he can be an upgrade from David Lough and back up Adam Jones in center, but they also had high hopes two years ago for Lough, who hit .310 with an .808 OPS in his first spring with the club before going on to post a .634 OPS over two seasons.

If we’re being honest, the Orioles deserve to be questioned after the 2015 corner-outfield committee failed miserably.

The organization would do cartwheels if Rickard could do what Delino DeShields, Jr. did as a Rule 5 pick for Texas last year when he posted a .718 OPS and 25 stolen bases and finished seventh in AL Rookie of the Year voting, but he was once a distinguished prospect and a former first-round pick of the Houston Astros.

After putting much stock in the Rule 5 draft in the Duquette era, the Orioles hope they’ve finally found a gem who just might satisfy their needs in left field as well as in the leadoff spot.

It’s a lot to ask, but Rickard will at least be interesting to watch.