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Baltimore Orioles

Orioles’ draft strategy remains a public mystery with two weeks until first overall pick

MINNEAPOLIS — As much external focus as there is on what the Orioles will do in two weeks with the first overall pick of the MLB draft, the 21 picks that follow will also have a role to play in that decision.

Practically every new mock draft has brought a different player going to Baltimore at No. 1, though that prospect has generally come from a group of four high schoolers — Georgia outfielder Druw Jones, Georgia infielder Termarr Johnson, Oklahoma infielder Jackson Holliday and Florida outfielder Elijah Green — and Cal Poly shortstop Brooks Lee. LSU infielder Jacob Berry featured in earlier mocks before shifting downward.

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But the changes in guesses of who Baltimore takes seemingly have little to do with inside knowledge of where executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias is leaning with his fourth straight top-five selection. In fact, it suggests the opposite: No one outside the organization is exactly sure of the Orioles’ plans.

Under Elias, the organization has been notorious for waiting until the final minutes before making a decision and not publicizing it once they do; they understandably have no interest in providing intel to the teams behind them. That was how the Orioles operated when taking Adley Rutschman with 2019′s first overall pick, even though he was considered the consensus top player in that draft class.

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This year, that’s Jones, the son of five-time All-Star and 10-time Gold Glove winner Andruw Jones, but he’s not necessarily viewed as being head and shoulders above the rest of the group. That’s led to speculation Elias will deploy a strategy he often has when operating with a high pick: selecting a player ranked slightly lower and signing him to an underslot deal, allowing for more financial flexibility later in the draft.

Each pick in the first 10 rounds is assigned a slot value; this year, the first overall pick’s slot is more than $8.8 million. Teams can sign players for a bonus above their respective figures without penalty as long as the total devoted to all of their picks doesn’t exceed their signing bonus pool, meaning signing one player above his slot requires signing at least another beneath his. Bonuses for players taken in the 11th through 20th rounds count against the bonus pool only if they exceed $125,000.

Holding five of the first 81 picks — one of which they acquired in a trade with the Miami Marlins as part of the return for relievers Tanner Scott and Cole Sulser — the Orioles’ draft bonus pool is nearly $17 million, the second largest in draft history. It trails only the 2015 Houston Astros when they had two of the top five selections with Elias as their amateur scouting director.

Whoever the Orioles take first overall will likely sign for underslot; even in getting a then-record bonus of $8.1 million in 2019, Rutschman still came in below his slot value. Those savings were largely directed to second-round pick Gunnar Henderson, a high school infielder from Alabama who is now the organization’s No. 3 prospect.

It’s not a matter of which potential draftee will take an underslot deal, but whether one, in a pool of players of similar talent levels, is willing to come in significantly beneath the others and allow the Orioles to capitalize later in the draft.

“We look at maximizing our entire draft,” Elias said last month.

In 2020, the Orioles surprisingly took Arkansas outfielder Heston Kjerstad with the second overall pick. Expected to go later in the top 10, Kjerstad signed for more than $2.5 million beneath the No. 2 pick’s slot value, enabling the Orioles to take high schoolers Coby Mayo and Carter Baumler in the fourth and fifth rounds, respectively, and sign them to deals more than $1 million above slot. Mayo is now the Orioles’ No. 5 prospect, according to Baseball America, with Baumler ranked 20th in the system. Kjerstad is 10th and did not make his professional debut until two years after he was drafted because of a heart condition and hamstring injury, though he’s playing well for Low-A Delmarva.

The Orioles are facing perhaps the most notable example of the underslotting strategy this weekend in Minnesota. The current signing bonus pool structure was first introduced in 2012, when Elias was in his first year in the Astros’ front office. He played a key role in Houston taking shortstop Carlos Correa first overall when he was expected to go slightly later in the first round, with the team applying those savings to other selections, including right-hander Lance McCullers Jr. Correa signed as a free agent with the Twins this offseason, pairing him with outfielder Byron Buxton, who was perceived as that draft’s top talent and ended up going second overall.

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Baltimore experienced the downsides of the strategy in 2021, which include a team planning to devote savings from one selection to another player in a later round only for the player being targeted to not reach its next pick. The Orioles’ first three picks in 2021 — outfielder Colton Cowser, infielder Connor Norby and outfielder Reed Trimble — all received underslot deals, with most of the savings devoted to eighth-round pick Creed Willems, a high school catcher from Texas who signed for $1 million against a slot value of about $187,700. Cowser and Norby are Baltimore’s Nos. 6 and 11 prospects, with both having already reached Double-A, while Trimble is 22nd and Willems is unranked.

Despite outward perceptions, the Orioles very well could’ve believed Kjerstad and Cowser were the best players available to them at the time they picked, and the same could apply to whoever they take No. 1 this year, Jones or otherwise.

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It’s believed Johnson in particular would represent an underslot option for them, with expectations he goes somewhere in the middle of the top 10 if the Orioles pass on him. But as a high school player, he retains significant leverage, and his bat is considered one of the best in the draft even if he profiles as a second baseman in the long run. Even Lee, believed to be the primary college player the Orioles are considering, has multiple years of college eligibility remaining, meaning he could return to school without immensely hampering his status.

That’s to say there might not be a clear underslot pick among the group the Orioles are reportedly targeting, and whoever they pick may well simply be who they considered the best player available, even if it’s not the one who aligned with that view publicly. It’s how they’ve operated in the draft and beyond under Elias, and the result has been a farm system that ranks among the best in baseball, with eight of their top 20 prospects having been drafted during Elias’ tenure after the first round and signed at or above slot.

As they have with each first pick under Elias, the Orioles will take who they believe is the best player at the right value. We won’t know who that is until draft night in two weeks.

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