When the Orioles’ front office featuring Houston Astros imports Mike Elias and Sig Mejdal took over in 2019, they inherited a farm system that had invested significant draft capital, especially in early rounds, on pitching to help reshape the future of the organization.
That, Elias said, allowed the team to focus more on hitters in the first few drafts on their watch. It could be difficult to do that again in 2021.
The Orioles have the fifth overall pick in Sunday’s MLB draft, and with the rise of several talented high school shortstops this spring, could find themselves with the opportunity to choose one of two pitchers who at the beginning of this spring season were almost assured to have been among the top few picks in the draft: Vanderbilt’s Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker.
Right through the end of the College World Series last week and into the penultimate week of draft preparation, the Orioles were bearing down on college pitching, including the Commodores’ co-aces, as they stared at the reality that one of them — possibly both — could be available for them to take at pick No. 5.
For a data-driven front-office that had to learn in Houston some hard lessons from pitchers at the top of the first round and now runs a team that has a fanbase growing impatient and always clamoring for more pitching at the big league level, the decision on whether to draft or pass on one of the Vanderbilt pitchers if they’re available at No. 5 could be a seminal one for this rebuild.
Would they do it?
“We very well might, and we do have some really talented pitchers to look at this year,” Elias, the executive vice president and general manager, said. “Overall, there are really, really good pitchers that you can only get at the top of the draft, and I think this organization before I got here did a great job picking Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall because those types of ceilings don’t come around after the first round very easily and you’ve got to do that when you feel it’s the right move.
“But, pitching is a little bit more risky in terms of injury, and there’s also a little bit more chance for pitchers to come out of the later parts of the draft — John Means, 11th round, just to give an example. So, I think that there is some more pressure on pitchers at the top of the draft to check a lot of boxes, but it’s draft-to-draft and year-to-year. We will absolutely take a pitcher at [No. 5] this year if it’s the one that we want and he’s the best player on our board.”
Leiter, a draft-eligible sophomore who is the son of Al Leiter, who pitched 19 seasons in the big leagues, had a 2.13 ERA and 179 strikeouts with a 0.85 WHIP in 18 starts for Vanderbilt this year. Rocker struck out 179 as well, albeit in 122 innings with a 0.93 WHIP and a 2.73 ERA in 20 starts.
Both have been tested at the highest college level possible in a Southeastern Conference that the Orioles love to draft from, with Rocker the College World Series Most Outstanding Player in 2019 and both pitching in the 2021 edition as well. Beyond them, the top prep pitcher in the draft is Oklahoma right-hander Jackson Jobe.
In evaluating any pitcher for the fifth pick, or any other selection the Orioles could make, their past performance will be compared with similar pitchers as amateurs and how their careers turned out after being drafted.
And as this front office well knows, both the Astros imports and the Orioles holdovers from past front offices, there’s plenty of risk in pitchers in the first round.
The Astros became renowned for how they improved pitchers in the 2010s, but the top of the draft didn’t necessarily help that. Mark Appel was the consensus top prospect in the 2013 draft when they took him first overall, but he never took off in professional baseball and was traded in 2015 for closer Ken Giles. He since retired but is attempting a comeback in the Philadelphia Phillies system, looking to avoid the distinction of becoming the third No. 1 overall pick to not make the majors.
A year later, they took high school left-hander Brady Aiken, who ultimately didn’t sign after his physical revealed an arm issue.
In the years since, the Astros took Texas prep right-hander Forrest Whitley 17th overall in 2016 and North Carolina right-hander J.B. Bukauskas 15th overall in 2017. Whitley quickly became one of the best pitching prospects in all the minors, but had Tommy John surgery this spring on the cusp of his major league debut. Bukauskas was sent to the Arizona Diamondbacks in the trade for Zach Greinke.
For the Orioles, Rodriguez (11th overall in 2016) has blossomed into the top pitching prospect in baseball, according to Baseball America. Hall (21st overall in 2017) was having a breakout year at Double-A Bowie before an elbow injury last month.
They were the last of six first-round pitchers the Orioles took last decade, with Dylan Bundy (2011) and Kevin Gausman (2012) each quickly reaching the majors but not delivering on their immense promise before the Orioles traded them. Gausman, on his fourth team now with the San Francisco Giants, was named an All-Star Sunday. Hunter Harvey (2013) is in the Orioles bullpen but continues to deal with injury problems, while Cody Sedlock (2016) is at Double-A Bowie.
Dan O’Dowd, a former general manager of the Colorado Rockies whose career began with the Orioles, said it’s hard not to be influenced by the picks that came before in a decision-making role.
“You’re a byproduct of your past experiences in your decision-making process,” said O’Dowd, who will be part of MLB Network’s draft coverage next week. “For me, I think that’s how knowledge turns into wisdom, when you make decisions over a long period of time, when you begin to realize what works and doesn’t work.
“Saying that, I don’t think you can paint every decision with the same brush. I think each pitcher is individual by nature, and every player is as such, too. I think there are characteristics that you look for in those particular pitchers that didn’t pan out that you certainly carry forward in your thought process when you go to make a decision.”
Every team, though, knows there’s risk in drafting pitchers high. Brad Ciolek, the Orioles’ domestic scouting supervisor, said the analytics department “does a great job” of quantifying that risk.
“We probably spend more time on pitching than practically anything,” Ciolek said. “We started this process really, really early on. We had scouts go take a look at them. We looked at the data. But there are a couple that are certainly going to be in our mix, and that’s probably a decision that will come to fruition here as we get a little bit closer.”
Now, at least, it’s a collaborative process. In Houston, Chris Holt helped evaluate pitchers for the draft even as a minor league pitching coach. Now as the Orioles’ director of pitching, their draft plan — at least in 2019 — seemed to be built around identifying pitchers their development methods best work in tandem with.
There are no standouts a la Rodriguez or Hall that came with the avalanche of third-day pitchers in 2019 or undrafted free agent arms in 2020, but many are showing signs that they could develop well in the low minors in their first full seasons.
The younger wave of pitching prospects could use a top addition to carry the flag in the way Rodriguez is for the older one, though drafting for need isn’t something anyone advises.
O’Dowd sees the top of this draft as full of quality players, and advises teams like the Orioles don’t overthink things by going under-slot and passing on a talented player for one rated lower but who will sign for less. He believes there’s a lot to like in the Orioles farm system, but still advises “quality over quantity” to complement 2019 top pick Adley Rutschman, Rodriguez, and their other top players. He’s not sure Rocker will be the pick at No. 5.
“Certainly, Jack and Kumar will be sexy names in the draft,” O’Dowd said. “That doesn’t mean that they’re the right pick for the Orioles, because the Jordan Lawlar kid [from Jesuit Prep in Texas] may be sitting there and I don’t see — other than Gunnar Henderson, who I really like as a player, I’m just not sure he ends up at shortstop. The Jordan Lawlar kid is a prototypical big league shortstop.
“Other than some swing-and-miss issues, he checks off every single box. I’m not sure that he’s not the better pick for them, because I think he might be sitting there for them at that pick too. They’ve got some tough decisions, because if the Pirates take [high school shortstop Marcelo Mayer first overall] and Texas ends up going with Jack Leiter at two, then the Orioles are going to be faced with some decisions of which direction do we go there?”