Start with a disclaimer.
The amateur draft, whether it is Major League Baseball’s or the NFL’s, or that of any other pro sport, is a crap-shoot. It is it exceptionally difficult to study teenagers and early 20-somethings and correctly predict what they will become in a few years.
Those that draft well consistently – the Ravens have been in that conversation, while the Orioles haven’t for decades – are often among the most successful franchises in sports.
The draft is also ripe with second-guessing and Monday Morning scouting directors -- part of the gig if you’re a pro sports franchise. In retrospect, if you whiff, there will be damning criticism because draft decisions can determine a club’s future path.
What would have happened if the Ravens had taken troubled running back Lawrence Phillips over Hall of Fame lineman Jonathan Ogden with the fourth overall pick in their first draft in 1996?
That line of thinking, albeit premature in this instance, brings us to the spring and summer of 2015, to the University of Maryland, and to two high-profile players heading into their respective drafts: wide receiver Stefon Diggs and outfielder LaMonte Wade.
Both were in Baltimore’s backyard. And both ended up in … Minnesota?
The NFL season isn’t half over yet, and already it looks like the Ravens -- and 30 other teams -- completely missed on the 21-year-old Diggs, who was taken in the fifth round (146th overall) by the Minnesota Vikings.
Wade, 21 and a graduate of St. Paul’s, obviously isn’t close to the majors yet. But he enthralled the local fan base by putting the Terps on his back during their run into the super regionals of the NCAA tournament in June. He was selected in the ninth round (260th overall) by the Minnesota Twins. In 64 games at rookie ball, Wade hit .312 with a .428 on-base percentage, nine homers, eight doubles, five triples, 45 RBIs and 12 steals.
Could the Orioles use prospects with plate discipline and speed? Could the Ravens use a rookie receiver who runs precise routes and is a dynamo after the catch?
A deep breath is warranted before answering those two.
Diggs, who was a five-star recruit coming out of Good Counsel in Montgomery County and spent three seasons at Maryland, has been a revelation for the Vikings. After being inactive for the first three games in 2015, Diggs has caught at least six passes and gained at least 87 yards in each of his first four career games.
How good has he been? The only other rookie in Vikings history with 25 catches in his first four games is Randy Moss. According to the NFL, Diggs is the first receiver in league history to post four straight 85-plus yard games in his first four contests as a pro.
Sure, maybe it’s just a fast start, but what a start.
It’s not like Diggs sneaked up on the Ravens the way he has on NFL defenders. They did extensive homework on him, and Diggs visited the Ravens’ facility for a pre-draft workout. They knew his strengths and his weaknesses.
One of the reasons Diggs slipped in the draft -- from potentially the third round to the fifth -- was his durability. He missed three games in 2014 with a lacerated kidney and six games in 2013 with a broken fibula.
This week, he has been limited with the Vikings because of a hamstring injury. So until his 6-foot, 191-pound frame proves it can take a consistent beating from the NFL behemoths and keep ticking, the budding superstar label should be tempered.
There also were some legitimate maturity concerns with Diggs at Maryland -- for instance, in 2014 he was suspended one game by the Big Ten for a pregame altercation with Penn State which included refusing to shake hands with his opponents and also making contact with an official. He later apologized for his actions, calling them “unacceptable.”
In the past, the Ravens haven’t shied away from character red flags if they believed the player in question could fit into their system and culture. In many cases, they’ve made it work. They also have had success with Maryland wideouts. Since the Ravens franchise came into existence in 1996, five Terrapins receivers have been drafted. The Ravens took two of them, Jermaine Lewis in 1996 and Torrey Smith in 2011. Lewis and Smith are arguably the most impactful receivers ever drafted by the Ravens -- both played key roles on Super Bowl title teams.
There’s also no argument that the Diggs who has produced for the Vikings would be a huge upgrade to the Ravens’ current wide receiving cadre. Take away the injured Steve Smith Sr. and running back Justin Forsett, and no Raven has more receptions than Diggs -- even though Diggs has been active just half of this season.
The Ravens’ first-round draft pick, wide receiver Breshad Perriman, hasn’t played a down because of a knee injury and might not play at all this season. The Ravens took five offensive skill players in the 2015 draft. That group -- Perriman, tight ends Maxx Williams and Nick Boyle, running back Buck Allen and wide receiver Darren Waller -- have combined for 32 receptions.
The Ravens had six shots at Diggs before Minnesota took him, including three fourth-round selections. In retrospect, the most criticized move likely will be passing up Diggs for Texas Southern cornerback Tray Walker, who was considered raw at the time and has maintained that label as a rookie, making two tackles in parts of five games.
Overall, 19 receivers were selected ahead of Diggs, including Duke’s Jamison Crowder, who was taken in the fourth round by Diggs’ other backyard NFL team, the Washington Redskins.
While Diggs clearly slipped in the draft, Wade went roughly where he was expected. One talent evaluator predicted before the June draft that Wade would probably be selected between the eighth and 10th rounds. And he was very much on the Orioles’ radar. He played three years for the organization’s scout team, the Maryland Orioles.
Wade wasn’t considered the Terps’ best pro prospect last season -- second baseman Brandon Lowe was taken in the third round by the Tampa Bay Rays. Left-hander Alex Robinson also was selected ahead of Wade, going in the fifth round to the Twins.
Wade, however, might have been the team’s highest-profile player based on his exploits in the postseason. He homered twice in the regionals and made several excellent defensive plays in center field.
The Orioles liked Wade, but they were clearly going for higher upside. They took high school players in four of the five rounds leading up to the ninth. For some in the organization, Wade projects more as a fourth outfielder than an everyday starter. His left-handed power stroke doesn’t project enough for a corner outfielder and his speed isn’t prototypical of a center fielder and leadoff hitter.
But being able to put the ball in play, get on base and steal a bag are attributes that the Orioles don’t have on their big league roster and are always searching for in the minors. Wade had a .394 on-base percentage in three seasons at Maryland, walking 107 times compared to just 92 strikeouts. He’s considered a plus defender at every outfield position (and first base) and, as a pro, has stolen 12 bases in 13 attempts.
His biggest positive, however, might be his makeup. If he reaches the majors, it’ll have as much to do with his work ethic and attitude as his baseball tools. The Twins apparently are thrilled with what he has done so far. Mike Radcliff, the Twins’ vice president for player personnel, told Baseball America, “LaMonte has outplayed his stock a little bit, no question. You love kids like this.”
Although Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette has stressed his desire to scout and draft local talent, the club historically has not done much with a Maryland baseball program that only recently has penetrated the collegiate baseball landscape.
Eight Terps were drafted this year, but none by the Orioles. In their history, the Orioles have drafted a dozen Terrapins; none have reached the majors with them. Two, pitcher Kevin Hart and infielder Jeff Schaefer, became big leaguers with other clubs.
Whether Wade becomes a big leaguer won’t be decided for some time. But if he does, it could be in Minnesota, where Diggs is already strutting his stuff.