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Orioles reset: Breaking down the selection of Colton Cowser with the O’s top MLB draft pick

Two and a half years of this Orioles rebuild has yet to produce winning baseball at Camden Yards, but has calcified a few foundational beliefs that have been consistent throughout.

One, in particular, exposes itself each draft night. The elite talent pipeline executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias promised on his first day is not one built on whims, but on data.

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Enter Colton Cowser, their top pick at No. 5 overall Sunday night, a left-handed hitting outfielder who produced elite statistics at Sam Houston State and, by virtue of the Orioles taking him, must have similarly superlative batted ball data to back it up.

High school shortstops can have tremendous upside but don’t always reach it. High-level pitching is even more risky. But the Orioles have thrice now looked at the draft, plugged the most productive college hitters in the country into their forecasting model, and been convinced they were making the right call.

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“We have all types of data about the draft and we study the heck out of the draft, and these elite college performers, over and over, are surprisingly good when you look back at past drafts,” Elias said Sunday. “You’re amazed that they didn’t go higher sometimes. That has continued to be a lesson, and history, year after year, we’re really mindful of that.”

On its face, there’s nothing complicated about it. Taking a raw leaderboard of college batting performers and selecting players off that might not lead to the best outcomes. But matching that with what your scouts see, what your advanced data analytics operation discovers, and what in-person workouts can show, can be enough sifting to find gold.

“I think one thing that’s just really rare with him, especially in today’s game, is the hit-for-average tool and the power without striking out,” Elias said. “He’s an elite contact hitter, uses the whole field, and like I said, he runs, he throws, he plays center field and plays it well. He’s just really able to do it all and those types of profiles are hard to find, especially with the certainty that an elite college performer provides.”

Those tools often tantalize, especially with high school players who display those traits in showcases but haven’t consistently done it in college. Cowser didn’t necessarily face top competition at Sam Houston State, but starred after his freshman year on the US Collegiate National Team among older players and excelled at high school wood-bat events as well.

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Cowser, though, has done it, and should breeze through the low minors and ensure he’s not far behind the wave of top prospects that will soon be at Camden Yards. By the draft next year, Orioles top hitting prospect Adley Rutschman plus top pitching prospects Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall could be breaking in with the Orioles. The rotation could also feature promising young trade acquisitions Kyle Bradish and Kevin Smith, and the young offensive core in the big leagues led by Cedric Mullins could be a year better.

Cowser won’t be up that quickly, but could easily get to Double-A Bowie by next year and thus be close enough to be considered an imminent option. The same way that Alex Bregman ripped through the minors and was ready to help an ascendant team quickly after Elias and the Houston Astros took him second overall in 2015, Cowser could be a player who fits an accelerated version of the timeline for the Orioles to be good again.

And yet, because these are the Orioles, nothing is actually simple. They have a minor league pitching program in place that has improved several top picks that this front office inherited, but a major league pitching staff that’s struggling as badly as any in the league. Famous college pitcher Kumar Rocker was there at No. 5 to take. They passed.

They could have had their pick of three of the top four high school shortstops — Jordan Lawlar, Brady House, or Kahlil Watson — but passed, with many believing the reason being the money they could save taking a college player like Cowser who might not have otherwise been drafted so high.

That the Orioles executed that strategy last year and Heston Kjerstad’s health issues make it impossible to determine whether it was the right move or not, there’s a level of hesitancy around anything with a similar feel that the team can’t avoid.

Sam Houston State's Colton Cowser, calling himself safe during a game against A&M Corpus Christi on March 27, was one of the most productive college hitters in the draft. The Orioles took him with the No. 5 pick in the MLB draft Sunday night.
Sam Houston State's Colton Cowser, calling himself safe during a game against A&M Corpus Christi on March 27, was one of the most productive college hitters in the draft. The Orioles took him with the No. 5 pick in the MLB draft Sunday night. (Michael Wyke)

As ever, it’s more baggage that might lead to skepticism of this pick than anything else. Not addressing a pitching deficiency and the idea of not paying a full bonus slot allotment to their top pick (even if in reality savings are passed on to other players and create a better class) is not always appeasing public opinion.

If anything, the simplicity might be the rub with this pick. There could be more upside in the high school shortstops, or more excitement in Rocker. And to the extent anyone brushes up on the draft beforehand, him being the Orioles’ pick at No. 5 is higher than any public projections had him going.

This isn’t four months of mock drafts predicting the Ravens will select Rashod Bateman because they need a wide receiver, then taking Bateman.

This is, simply, a team trying to make as safe and sound a pick as possible using the best and most abundant data available to them. The past data tells them elite college hitters have the best outcomes. Until they prove otherwise, the expectation should be that the Orioles will select one high. They’re certainly going to have a high pick to do it again in 2022. Maybe Cowser will be part of the reason why they won’t be picking at the top of the draft before long.

Orioles starting pitcher Wade LeBlanc (49) walks off after being yanked by manager Brandon Hyde during the second inning of a game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on April 24. Starting pitching has been an issue since John Means' no-hitter in May.
Orioles starting pitcher Wade LeBlanc (49) walks off after being yanked by manager Brandon Hyde during the second inning of a game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on April 24. Starting pitching has been an issue since John Means' no-hitter in May. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

What’s to come?

Manager Brandon Hyde doesn’t know who’s going to start for the Orioles after the four-day All-Star break, but when asked to reflect on what he’s taken away from the first half of the season, he focused on whoever does pitch needing to be better.

“For me, it just shows you how far away we are pitching-wise. We threw the ball well the first month, we kind of hung around .500-ish, and then really since the Means no-hitter, we haven’t been able to stay in the games on the mound and our rotation is beat up,” he said. “We don’t have good numbers. Our bullpen is taxed because of it, so a lot of concern there.

“But yeah, I mean, we somehow have to get our starting pitchers to go a little bit longer, be able to be more efficient in getting outs. That being said, we’ve faced really good lineups and some of these guys struggled. So, we need to get better to survive the second half.”

The Orioles return to action Friday at Kansas City.

Orioles shortstop Ramón Urías, rounding the bases after homering in the second inning Friday night against the Chicago White Sox in Baltimore, has been a bright spot. He entered Sunday batting .366 with a 1.008 OPS in this everyday role.
Orioles shortstop Ramón Urías, rounding the bases after homering in the second inning Friday night against the Chicago White Sox in Baltimore, has been a bright spot. He entered Sunday batting .366 with a 1.008 OPS in this everyday role. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

What was good?

The Orioles haven’t had many bright spots on the infield this season, but Ramón Urías is slowly becoming one. He struggled early in the year, but since Freddy Galvis went down with a quadriceps injury and Urías became the regular shortstop, he’s been among the Orioles’ most productive hitters.

Urías entered Sunday batting .366 with a 1.008 OPS in this everyday role, showing the work he did on “getting the barrel out in front a little more on fastballs” while on his minor league assignment at Triple-A Norfolk.

“When he was here before, he was really [hitting] a lot of middle, the other way, which was great, but sometimes they would ride fastballs up, ride fastballs in on him,” Hyde said. “Had a tough time kind of getting there. I know that was a point of emphasis when he went down. He made some adjustments and you see him getting the barrel out, driving some balls to the left side and taking some really good at-bats right now.”

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Orioles right fielder DJ Stewart looks on from the dugout during the seventh inning of a game against the Toronto Blue Jays June 18 in Baltimore.
Orioles right fielder DJ Stewart looks on from the dugout during the seventh inning of a game against the Toronto Blue Jays June 18 in Baltimore. (Julio Cortez/AP)

What wasn’t?

As the Orioles welcome another first-round pick into the organization, a former one seems like he’s the odd-man out in the outfield. DJ Stewart appeared in 47 of the team’s first 61 games and was hitting .222 with a .728 OPS on June 11 when Austin Hays was activated from the injured list to give the team its full array out of outfielders available.

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Since then, Stewart has faded into a reserve role, and entered Sunday batting .159 with a .495 OPS and one home run in the month since. He’s appeared in 15 of 27 games since Hays returned, and Hyde said he talked to Stewart this week about “just keeping his head up.”

“Right now, we’ve got five guys and they’re pretty healthy,” Hyde said. “That’s not going to always be the case there these last 70-plus games or whatever it is. Just stay ready. Stay ready for your opportunity, and it’s a long season left. He’s going to get plenty of at-bats here in the second half.”

Orioles prospect Cadyn Grenier, playing in a Baysox game June 15, has had an offensive renaissance of late at Double-A.
Orioles prospect Cadyn Grenier, playing in a Baysox game June 15, has had an offensive renaissance of late at Double-A. (Kenneth K. Lam)

On the farm

The top pick each team has in the MLB draft is the one that gets the most buzz, but this year was different in that the Orioles only had one selection and the second round was pushed to the second day.

In past years, they’ve gotten good players after their highly-touted first picks. In 2018, they took Oregon State infielder Cadyn Grenier in the competitive balance round A, and his offensive renaissance of late at Double-A Bowie has turned his career around, and 2019 second-round pick Kyle Stowers is impressing at Bowie as well.

At Aberdeen, 2019 second-round pick Gunnar Henderson and 2020 competitive balance round pick Jordan Westburg are forming a dynamic left side of the infield.

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