Given a choice, Chris Jones decided to return to the Orioles . Photo courtesy of Elaina Ellis / Norfolk Tides.
It was strange to read that the Orioles released Jones. He was a viable candidate to fill the lefty-in-the-bullpen void caused by Troy Patton's drug suspension. Baseball America had rated Jones as the number 27 prospect in the Orioles system. He turned 25 in September. Granting that he's no Nelson Cruz, teams rarely release a top thirty prospect, especially a top thirty prospect who is ready for the majors, especially a top thirty prospect who is ready for the majors and the incumbent at his position is facing a suspension.
It was even stranger because the Orioles hadn't added Chris Jones to the 40-man roster until November 4. Presumably, they added him to the roster to shield him from either minor-league free agency and/or the Rule 5 draft. Then, before he even had an opportunity to pitch in a spring-training game, they released him. Then, the Orioles re-signed Jones to a minor-league contract just days after releasing him.
In the words of the Buffalo Springfield song For What It's Worth, "There's something happening here // But what it is ain't exactly clear." This has the look of a prearranged deal, in which Jones had agreed to re-sign with the Orioles after a discreet period as a free agent. But why go through all this folderol? Why didn't the Orioles just outright Jones to Norfolk, as they've done so many times with so many other players?
They couldn't. Major league baseball has rules whose essential purpose is to prevent teams from circumventing the Rule 5 draft, rules which govern players eligible for the Rule 5 draft added to the 40-man roster between August 15 and the Rule 5 draft (last year held on December 5). Such players cannot be optioned or outrighted to the minors until 20 days before opening day (this year, March 11). The intent of this rule, of course, is to prevent a team from adding a player to the 40-man roster to shield him from the Rule 5 draft and then removing him from the roster shortly after the draft.
So, if the Orioles decided that Chris Jones had to be the player removed from the 40-man roster to make room for Nelson Cruz, they had no choice but to release him. And if they had entered into an agreement with Jones to re-sign him, then that's a sign of progress in the Orioles front office. In 2012, the Orioles lost an investment precisely because they weren't aware and/or paying attention to these rules.
Kyle Hudson was the Orioles' 4th-round draft pick in 2008; he signed for a $287,500 bonus. He was a "project," a four-sport athlete who focused on baseball late. In 2011, the 24-year-old Hudson hit .297/.382/.333 at Norfolk, and was rewarded with a September call-up in which he got 28 at-bats. Baseball America rated Hudson as the Orioles' #29 prospect before the 2012 season. But because Hudson wasn't on the 40-man roster until his post-August 15 promotion -- he became a Rule-5 protected player. So, on January 10. 2012, when the Orioles tried to outright Hudson off the 40-man roster to make room for Wei-Yin Chen, they discovered that to do so would violate the above rules. Hudson was declared a free agent and signed with the Rangers.
Of course, the loss of Hudson didn't have much of an impact on the Orioles' future; he's nothing more than a pinch-running outfielder, sort of a poor man's Joey Gathright. Nevertheless, it was embarrassing to lose a top-30 prospect coming off a good -- one might say breakthrough -- year because the front office didn't pay attention to rule details. If the Orioles did indeed prearrange to re-sign Chris Jones, then the front office has learned from its prior mistake -- a good thing.
With Troy Patton preparing to serve a 50-game drug suspension to start the season, there was a bullpen job available for a left-handed relief pitcher. There were three obvious candidates for the job -- Jones, free-agent signing Kelvin De La Cruz, and Mike Belfiore. Now that Jones has been removed from the 40-man roster and Belfiore has been optioned to Norfolk, it seems that De La Cruz has become the front-runner.