In an MLB draft that unfolded in unexpected ways above them, the Orioles confronted the uncertainty that comes with making a top pick by going with the most reliable kind of player they know: the elite college producer.
For a third straight year, the Orioles used their top draft pick on a top college hitter in selecting Sam Houston outfielder Colton Cowser with the No. 5 overall pick in Sunday’s MLB draft.
“Colton has been and is one of the best pure hitters in the country since setting foot on campus at Sam Houston,” Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said. “All-American, Team USA, year after year, and this year put up a superlative line for them, showing power, hitting for average, speed, defense.
“He’s a five-tool player, and he’s somebody that we project to impact our team and our lineup on both sides of the ball both offensively and defensively. I think it’s rare to get those type of physical tools and all five of them in a college performer, like we just did, so that’s why we took him. It’s a very exciting start to our draft.”
The 21-year-old from outside Houston said he came to Baltimore for a workout and had an idea the Orioles were seriously interested in selecting him for most of the spring, with Elias going to see him play in person in mid-May. But he didn’t know he’d be their pick until shortly before the call Sunday.
“It’s a dream come true,” Cowser said after a watch party in his hometown of Cypress, Texas. “I’ve dreamed about this and my family has invested a lot in me, and sacrificed a lot of time. To be able to spend it with friends and family means the world to me.”
Cowser was the Southland Conference Player of the Year for the Bearkats, batting .374 with a 1.170 OPS and 16 home runs as a junior, but his entire career there was productive. He was the league’s hitter of the year as a freshman in 2019, batting .361 with a 1.052 OPS and earning a spot on the US Collegiate National Team that summer.
He plays a true center field but has the arm to play anywhere in the outfield, and provides a combination of present talent and future growth that the Orioles are excited for. Cowser believes he’s more advanced as a hitter than anything else, and can improve on hitting with power more consistently.
“He’s got a lot of projection ahead of him,” Elias said. “This isn’t a totally finished product.”
MLB.com rated Cowser as the draft’s 10th-best prospect, while Baseball America had him at No. 11. To the extent Cowser was linked to the Orioles in pre-draft analysis, it was as a player who would possibly sign for below the recommended slot amount of $6.187 million, allowing the Orioles to give a larger portion of their overall $11,829,300 signing bonus pool to players taken later in the draft.
That was the strategy the Orioles used with No. 2 overall pick Heston Kjerstad in 2020, an approach that executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said before the draft can be “a big part of gleaning the most value from the draft.”
Elias said after Sunday’s pick that bonus considerations were secondary.
“Look, whatever we end up signing him for, we’ll sign him for and obviously from the club’s side, you want to preserve as much capital for the rest of the draft as possible,” Elias said. “But you take the guy that you want to take, and that’s what we did here. This was our player at five, and so that’s the most important thing.”
Even as the draft dropped several well-regarded players down the board, it’s not hard to envision Cowser was always going to be the Orioles’ pick. Their data-based draft model often elevates college producers to high stations on their draft boards if factors like plate discipline and quality of contact match that production.
In Cowser’s case, those evaluations and possible bonus savings elevated him above top high school shortstops including Jordan Lawlar, Kahlil Watson, and Brady House, as well as Vanderbilt right-hander Kumar Rocker.
That group of players was on the board after the Pittsburgh Pirates took Louisville catcher Henry Davis as a surprise No. 1 overall pick, followed by right-hander Jack Leiter at No. 2 to the Texas Rangers, high school pitcher Jackson Jobe at No. 3 to Detroit, and top prep shortstop Marcelo Mayer at No. 4 to Boston.
The Orioles’ player pool wasn’t exactly what they expected it to be for pick No. 5.
“All these guys are tempting. I mean, these are really good players,” Elias said. “As I’ve said, it’s a huge decision at the top of the draft. It’s very tough that there are going to be several impact, All-Star big leaguers coming out of the pool, guys that you’re selecting, and you’re trying to do something to give yourself the best odds to get one of those.”
In order to do that, the Orioles are relying on the reliability of statistical standouts in the college ranks. Since Elias took over in November 2018, the Orioles have now had three picks in the top five in the draft. Cowser is the third college hitter they’ve taken with those picks, with the previous two experiencing polar outcomes so far.
Rutschman, the 2019 No. 1 overall pick, is the consensus No. 2 prospect in all of baseball and will be No. 1 when recently-promoted Tampa Bay Rays infielder Wander Franco graduates from rookie status this summer.
They made a surprise selection of Kjerstad at No. 2 overall and signed him to a below-slot signing bonus to allow them to draft players that required high bonuses later in the draft, but Kjerstad was diagnosed with myocarditis — inflammation of the heart muscle — in the fall. He began working back into game form this spring in Sarasota, Florida, but had a recurrence of the issue and was shut down again. His long-term future on the field is in question because of it.
It’s been the Orioles’ strategy in the last two drafts to focus heavily on college hitters, partly because the preceding drafts under the old front office had added so much pitching talent to the organization.
After Rutschman, the Orioles used early picks on college outfielders Kyle Stowers and Zach Watson and shortstop Joey Ortiz, all of whom are performing well this year. After Kjerstad in 2020, their next three picks were college players in shortstop Jordan Westburg, outfielder Hudson Haskin, and shortstop Anthony Servideo.
The No. 5 overall pick was the Orioles’ only selection on the draft’s first day, with the second round beginning Monday at 1 p.m. The Orioles have the fifth pick in every round, beginning with No. 41 overall, as well as a competitive balance round pick after the second round at No. 65.
Cowser and the rest of the Orioles’ draft picks have until Aug. 1 to sign. Asked whether he thought that would progress quickly, Cowser was unsure.
“It happened kind of quick, but we’ll see what happens for sure — pretty shortly,” he said.