In the leadup to the Orioles making the first overall selection in the 2019 draft, first-year executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias brushed off the possibility that the team would pass on one of the draft’s consensus top talents to try to finesse the bonus pool system, much the way the Houston Astros did in 2012 with Elias in an advisory role.
Turns out, that approach wasn’t needed for the Orioles to have the flexibility to pursue their later-round selections.
On Wednesday, with the introduction of second-rounder Gunnar Henderson and the signing of third-rounder Zach Watson, the Orioles locked up all of their picks from the first 10 rounds of the draft, a list that begins with a player viewed by many as the best available in No. 1 overall pick Adley Rutschman.
The assigned slot values for picks in the first 10 rounds determine a team’s bonus pool, and the Orioles had the second largest of any team at more than $13.8 million. The team’s savings on picks from the first 10 rounds were about $345,300, allowing them to use that money toward any of their remaining unsigned players who seek a bonus above $125,000.
“There's always a little suspense because not signing one player can affect the other players in your pool,” Elias said. “That's just the way the system is now. So, until you have everyone in the fold, physicals passed, signing the dotted line, you have to protect against the scenario that some of these guys might not sign.
“We’ve still got some players left to sign in this class, some high picks and potentially some a little later down, and we're working on that right now.”
Even though Rutschman received a record $8.1 million signing bonus, only Henderson, a high schooler with first-round talent who had committed to Auburn, received an over-slot deal among the Orioles’ draftees. Had the Orioles not signed him, they would have lost his slot value of about $1.77 million from their overall pool.
“It’s never 100[% guaranteed], especially when it’s a young kid with good grades and a college commitment and a choice,” Elias said. “You’re prepared for the outcome not working out, but we used our preparation and our scouts’ feel and our experience, and we take a calculated risk when we select a player like that. But the important thing is everything worked out in this case. He’s a huge part of our draft class. I’m really excited about him.
“This is somebody that was viewed as a talent that could have gone a little higher than he did in the draft. We had to pay over slot to sign him, but we were able to make it work and fit in our pool without compromising too much talent. I think it was a really good outcome.”
The Orioles have signed 32 of their 41 draftees, with 11th-rounder Andrew Daschbach, 13th-rounder Dan Hammer and 29th-rounder Houston Roth the only college players remaining unsigned among the group. The other players the organization has yet to sign are high schoolers taken in the 34th round or later.
Elias said it will still be difficult to sign any of the high school players because of the leverage a college commitment provides, but the remaining bonus pool could help in that effort. Teams have until 5 p.m. on July 12 to sign their 2019 draftees.
“I think we'll check in on them before the deadline,” Elias said. “But with how late they were taken and how late we get into the summer, it can make it a little bit more of an uphill battle. But we're certainly not going to quit on those guys.”
Regardless of what happens with the nine unsigned draftees, the Orioles think they have injected talent and athleticism into a farm system that was starving for it, through players such as Rutschman and Henderson.
It marked the new regime’s first major chance to put a stamp on the organization, especially for Elias, who earned a reputation for drafting and developing with Houston.
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“I think it's a good start,” Elias said. “We're looking to add talent to the organization. I think we've done that with this draft, and as I remind myself, we're not the only team that gets to draft players. So, we're going to see our guys stack up over the years, but I think this was a really good draft for us, a lot of different types of players. And it's going to improve our system.”