FREDERICK — The Orioles believed after last year's draft that they had selected impact players who could change the face of their farm system. In the year since, those key players are doing just that.
The club assigned three of its top four picks — pitchers Cody Sedlock and Keegan Akin, plus outfielder Austin Hays — to High-A Frederick, skipping them a level at the beginning of the season and showing both the players and the baseball world what the Orioles think of their latest draft prizes.
"That absolutely says something different, because this is a really tough league, especially in the first half," director of player development Brian Graham said Monday. "The Carolina League in the first half is a really difficult league with really good players. … For young players who were playing in college last year at this time to be competing in the Carolina League at the level they are, that's good."
Almost a year out from that draft, the reviews for all three from Graham and the organization have been positive.
The 21, selected in the first round out of Illinois, allowed one earned run in five innings Monday, lowering his ERA from 6.20 to 5.80. It had been elevated by a difficult three-week stretch in late April and early May.
"Sedlock has been inconsistent, but he's also been good," Graham said. "There's time when he shows you exactly what a first-round draft pick looks like. He uses his fastball, throws strikes, he's got two good breaking balls and a good changeup. We're certainly pleased with the progress he's making. Hopefully in the second half, he'll be a little more consistent."
Akin, 22, pitched Sunday after skipping a start to work extra in bullpen sessions, and responded with six scoreless innings during which he struck out seven and allowed two hits without a walk, lowering his ERA to 5.16.
"Akin pitched yesterday the way that he's capable of pitching," Graham said. "Akin was really good yesterday, and that's what we're looking for from him. We gave him a little break, skipped a start with him and worked with him in the bullpen, and he came back and pitched the way he's capable of."
For Akin, a second-round pick out of Western Michigan, the biggest challenge has been establishing himself early in at-bats against hitters who aren't willing to let him get ahead.
"I would say the level of hitting is a little bit better here," he said. "A lot of free swinging, and as a pitcher, your first pitch of the at-bat you want to throw a strike and you've got guys swinging at it every time. It's tough. You've got to always locate. You've got to have well-located first-pitch strikes or you'll find yourselves getting hit around a little bit."
For both him and Sedlock, who two summers ago pitched together in the Cape Cod League, a college summer circuit, the past few weeks are more what they're looking for.
"On my end, for sure," Akin said. "Just looking at it from the outside on his end, we're starting to both figure out. Obviously, I didn't want it to take this long to figure it out, but you've got to go through the lows to get to the highs at some point."
Hays, 21, has been the crown jewel of the class thus far. The third-round outfielder, who played at Jacksonville, dealt with a wrist injury last year at Short-A Aberdeen, but hasn't required much adjustment to the Carolina League. He entered Monday batting .311/.347/539 with 10 home runs and 11 doubles.
"Hays is playing very well," Graham said. "He's doing everything on both sides of the ball. He's having good at-bats, he's shown some power, he's hitting for average, he's grinding out at-bats. Defensively, he's played well in center field. For us, if he can play center field, we know he can play the corners. That makes a pretty valuable outfielder."
For Hays, the biggest adjustment has been off the field. Between his abbreviated spell in Aberdeen and the sporadic nature of the college schedule before that, playing every day has required him to learn his body on the fly.
"The hardest thing for me was just learning how to listen to my body, and know when to go to the gym, when to stay away from the gym, when to throw hard on the field and when to back it off a little," Hays said. "Trying to learn how to let your body rest without taking the day off. That was the hardest thing for me, but as far as the talent level goes and the game itself, it's still baseball. You just have fun doing it and compete with the guys that are out there on the field."
If one thing binds the three together, it's the faith the club showed in starting them so high and letting their talents carry them at this level. Akin said it's helpful to know the organization believes so much in what they bring, and he doesn't believe the placements were aggressive, but instead deserved. Hays said it's easier to play knowing the organization thinks they can handle the challenge.
"It just gives you that much more confidence in yourself to go out and do what you've always done and know that people appreciate that, the way that you play," he said.
There's also a good contingent of 2016 draft picks at Low-A Delmarva, where second-round right-hander Matthias Dietz could probably be categorized the same as Sedlock and Akin — showing the talent that warranted a high selection but not yet consistent.
Graham also noted outfielder Jake Ring (.326/.377/.609 with 31 extra-base hits) and infielder Chris Clare (.274 with capable defense at shortstop) at Delmarva. But in player development, the one-year mark coming out of a draft isn't the benchmark anyone is looking for to evaluate players.
"There's a number of guys that I really like out of the draft, and let them play up the line and see where they end up," Graham said. "Who knows who's going to be a big leaguer? We'll let you know in three years."