The Baltimore Orioles claimed right-handed pitcher Cole Sulser off waivers from the Tampa Bay Rays on Tuesday. Sulser represents the first player to change hands since the conclusion of the regular season. As we saw when Tampa Bay cut ties with promising infielder Kean Wong, they have a surplus of talent on their 40-man roster, and Sulser is no exception. Like Wong, he had been given his first major-league opportunity in September after posting exceptional numbers in Triple A.
Over 66 innings pitched, Sulser posted a 3.27 ERA with a 2.94 FIP, a 12.14 K/9, and a 3.27 BB/9. He performed exceptionally well during his first 7.1 major-league innings as well, throwing 7.1 scoreless with a 1.99 FIP. His numbers in 2019 weren’t an aberration either, as he threw 48 innings of 2.63 ERA, 3.32 FIP ball in his first Triple-A stint in 2017. While his 4.53 ERA wasn’t very promising in his second season at the minor’s highest level, his peripheral statistics, including a 2.42 FIP and .410 BABIP, suggest that he had been the victim of bad fortune.
Baltimore acquires the right-hander with three minor-league options and six seasons of team control remaining, which is significant, as Sulser will be 30 years old throughout the entire 2020 season. I would consider him likely to remain on the 40-man roster for the foreseeable future, as the Orioles have a considerable amount of players who seem likely to be removed from the roster before next season, most of whom come with much less upside or flexibility.
Sulser’s realistic ceiling seems likely to be that of an eighth inning set-up type, while his floor is spending the 2020 season on the taxi-squad. The outcome that I would deem most likely would be that of a mainstay middle reliever, to low-leverage set-up man. My projections have him posting a 3.18 ERA over 50.1 innings pitched including a 3.36 BB/9 and an 11.24 K/9.
The Orioles didn’t have to make room on the roster, as right-handed pitcher Chandler Shepherd had been sent outright on Monday. Ordinarily, players who clear waivers at this time of year are destined for the minor-league free agent market, but Shepherd will remain under the Orioles’ control through 2020. This is, perhaps, the most favorable outcome that Shepherd could’ve experienced, as the Orioles currently sit with John Means, Dylan Bundy, and Alex Cobb as the only locks in their 2020 rotation, while most of the bullpen spots could be anyone’s game.
Now that he’s off the 40-man roster, Shepherd is more of an outside candidate for an opening day roster spot but seems exceptionally likely to reach the major leagues once again, assuming his performance is palatable. He ended the 2019 season on a high note shutting down his former organization, the Boston Red Sox, after struggling in his first crack at the majors, posting a 6.63 ERA and 6.11 FIP over 19 innings. One thing, however, that was encouraging were his strikeout and walk numbers, as he posted a 2.84 BB/9 and an 8.05 K/9.
The realistic, best-case scenario for Shepherd seems to be that of a serviceable five, while his most likely outcome is that of a reliever called up to replace an injured player early in the season, who sticks around through season’s end and serves as a taxi-swing — as he did for the last month of the 2019 season. If added to the 40-man roster, he still has a remaining minor-league option, giving the Orioles flexibility. My projections have him posting a 4.95 ERA over 18 games pitched (eight started), good for 57.1 innings. That also comes with a 1.44 HR/9, a 2.88 BB/9, and an 8.59 K/9.