When the Orioles’ 2019 draft class, headlined by first overall pick and top prospect Adley Rutschman, was assembled a year ago, the expectation was that the organization would quickly get on with the business of transforming the farm system and its future.
The draft class did nothing to dissuade that with its Rookie-level success last summer. Team officials also say the priority prospects haven’t been deterred this year by losing the pivotal first full professional season to get acclimated to seven straight months of daily baseball.
Even so, Orioles executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias said that it’s “definitely not ideal” for the players to miss time due to the coronavirus pandemic while also dealing with the uncertainty about any minor league baseball happening this season.
“I think that the biggest comfort is in that all 30 teams are experiencing this equally in the same way, so they’re going to be in the same boat as an entire generation of baseball players — not just professional but amateur as well — will all be in,” Elias said. “In terms of the disruption that this has caused around the world, this is really low on the list of concerns. But these guys are professional baseball players, and coming out of this is going to be something that they’re going to have to figure out in a way that no other generation of players has.
“But in terms of what it’s going to do to people’s development, timelines, so forth, I think it’s tough to answer that without knowing what the rest of the season looks like for minor league players, and how much and what kind of development reps they get this year.”
The first draft class from Elias and company after they were hired in 2018 supplemented what was already an improving farm system, with the likes of Austin Hays and Ryan Mountcastle poised to make a major league impact with their bats this year and former first-round picks Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall each cementing himself as a top-level pitching prospect last season. There’s also a wave of high-minors pitching, including Michael Baumann, Dean Kremer, Zac Lowther, Alex Wells, Bruce Zimmermann and Keegan Akin.
But with their own evaluation methods and systems to draft from, the new Orioles front office has put plenty of stock into their 2019 draft. Rutschman is the obvious headliner, but productive college players such as Kyle Stowers, Zach Watson, Joey Ortiz and Johnny Rizer all showed well last year. Prep shortstops Gunnar Henderson and Darell Hernaiz are longer-term prospects with tremendously high ceilings.
And though they didn’t draft many pitchers early, those they did take impressed in the Gulf Coast League and at Short-A Aberdeen with a collective 1.85 ERA, a 1.07 WHIP, and over 10 strikeouts per nine innings as a group.
Replicating those performances with full-season clubs this season could have legitimized some of those pitchers as legitimate prospects, and allowed the college bats to show what they can do when they’re fresh instead of coming off a long NCAA season.
Instead, they’re all biding their time back home thinking of how talented the group assembled around them is and waiting to get a chance to play with them again.
“Everybody that I met, they have a great head on their shoulders and they’re going to run out every ball that’s hit,” Henderson said. “Hitting-wise, they’re all very consistent and they always hit pretty well and hit for power with contact, so I’m just really looking forward to how it pans out in the next few years.”
Henderson and Hernaiz saw some of the pitching talent firsthand last year on their division champion GCL club and got a full impression of the draft class in the early camp before minor league spring training began.
Of the 26 position players invited early to minor league camp to get a jump-start on their development, 10 were 2019 draftees, with Rutschman at major league camp before going to the minor league side. Eight of the pitchers in the early camp were their 2019 draftees, with two more — Kyle Brnovich and Zach Peek — 2019 draftees of the Los Angeles Angels who came over in the Dylan Bundy trade.
That’s a lot wrapped up in one draft class, and the players can feel the importance of both their class and player development as a whole to the new Orioles front office.
“I think everybody was just bought into the same concepts, same mindset,” Hernaiz said. “Everyone was locked in and ready to go. It felt really awesome to be a part of it. I really have high hopes for our organization. There’s been a ton of changes with technology. I love it, and I think my draft class, also, I think everybody’s really, really good. I think they did a great job with our draft class, for sure. We can definitely turn things around.”
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The proof of that can only be judged on the field, both this year and down the road. But the club is keeping its minor leaguers ready to potentially return to baseball in some form with virtual hitters meetings, mental skills training and yoga over Zoom. Earlier in the shutdown, they had 150-member dinners over Zoom and started a book club.
The Orioles are using an app to track player’s workouts, and Henderson said each player has his own development plan to work off from the coaching staff.
“They have a little player plan they printed out for us to give us some ideas on what they see in our swing, and who it compares to and maybe some drills to help,” Henderson said. “But they’re not really going to make you do it. That’s what I kind of like, you get to find what fits your swing — it’s not just a set criteria. We get to see what works and see what helps it rather than hinder it.”
All that work from home comes as they only have last summer’s pro ball experience to pull from in terms of preparing for the mental grind of a baseball season. Even Orioles manager Brandon Hyde, whose background is in player development, acknowledged how important that first full professional season is for routine-building and consistency purposes. There’s still a chance some form of minor league baseball can return this summer, even if it’s at the complex level at spring training facilities.
The Orioles’ 2019 draftees, along with the rest of the organization’s minor leaguers, will be ready when that comes.