The situation is nothing new to Robert Neustrom, even if it’s not ideal. He’s been here before, a high school baseball standout in Sioux City, Iowa, who flew under the radar. Before he became a star at the University of Iowa, he needed to walk onto the Hawkeyes program, proving to others what he already believed about himself — that he belonged.
“I’ll always be that kid from Iowa who the scouts weren’t flocking to, and the colleges weren’t flocking to,” Neustrom said this week, sitting in the dugout at Harbor Park, the home of the Triple-A Norfolk Tides. “I always play like I’ve got nothing to lose.”
That’s how Neustrom stays positive. When he wasn’t added to the Orioles’ 40-man roster at the end of last season, he realized a major league debut with another club was a possibility. He had four seasons of minor league service time, making him eligible for the Rule 5 draft.
But as the Major League Baseball lockout dragged on, Neustrom and others were left in limbo. And then the league and players association canceled this offseason’s Rule 5 draft, a move that left players such as Neustrom and left-hander Nick Vespi in the lurch.
Players selected in the draft must be kept on the major league roster for the next season or be offered back to the original team for half the $100,000 selection fee. At this point, rather than playing in Triple-A, either Neustrom or Vespi could’ve made his major league debut elsewhere.
“You can always say I could’ve,” Vespi said. “But everything happens for a reason. I’m here. I still have the chance to make it here.”
It’s that mentality that drives both Neustrom and Vespi, still off Baltimore’s 40-man roster yet driven to make their case at a big league debut with the club that drafted them. They have no other option than to accept any lingering disappointment from the Rule 5 draft cancellation and prove they belong with the Orioles.
Both players are doing their part. Entering Wednesday, Vespi has recorded four saves and allowed three runs in 13 1/3 innings out of the bullpen. Neustrom is hitting .278 with five homers, five steals and 16 RBIs.
When the Rule 5 draft was canceled, the conversations with agents and family members started with disappointment. But Vespi and Neustrom rebounded quickly, refocusing on what they could do with this organization to deserve a look.
Vespi wanted to pound the strike zone more, and he did so in Tuesday’s save, working 1 2/3 innings without allowing a hit. Neustrom aimed to improve his defense, dispelling any doubts from scouts about his ability to play all three outfield spots. He wanted to work on his swing decisions, lowering his chase rate.
Those were improvements they wanted to make whether or not the Rule 5 draft was conducted.
“There’s a reason for everything they do,” Neustrom said. “They canceled the Rule 5, and it just so happened to be in my Rule 5 year. That’s what happened. And honestly, man, I can honestly say when it did happen, sure I was hurt, but at the same time I already knew the task at hand. And my task is to get to the big leagues. That’s not an easy task for anybody. I know if I come out here and work hard, do what I need to do, I believe someone will see it, whether it’s the Orioles or someone else.”
Vespi and Neustrom both earned major league spring training invitations, working in front of the Orioles staff and executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias. Vespi met Elias, and while he didn’t make the big league squad, he left camp feeling valued.
“When my time comes, I’ll go,” Vespi said. “Let’s go.”
And for Neustrom, the initial “heartbreak” of the Rule 5 draft cancellation has only hardened his resolve. He knows there was no guarantee he’d be drafted. If it did happen, he might be in the same position he is in now, fighting to be noticed among a throng of highly ranked prospects.
He’s been in this position before, though, as a high school kid proving his worth for Iowa. So the task ahead, while daunting in nature, isn’t anything he’d shy away from.
“You look around, there’s so much competition,” Neustrom said. “I have my work set out for me. Everybody does. My mountain I have to climb is pretty tall. I want to do it, you know what I mean? I’m here right now and I’m with the Orioles. I want to help the Orioles win. That’s my goal. I want to be on a team that I know I’m making a difference. And also, I want to be on a team that has a winning culture, and I think with all the talent we have here with the Orioles, it can one day happen, and I would love to be a part of it.”