In an unprecedented year of no baseball during a pandemic, the calendar turning to June means a particularly heightened relevance will be placed for the Orioles on the amateur draft.
With the draft abbreviated to five rounds over two days June 10-11, the Orioles will have six picks thanks to a competitive balance selection they were awarded after the first round. They’ll also have the most pool money available to spend on those picks.
That’s all that’s really certain. The preparation has been unique without any amateur baseball to scout, leaving teams to rely on video and data more than ever. But as the draft preparation ramps up virtually for those who would normally be inside the Warehouse overlooking Oriole Park at Camden Yards, here are five questions this draft process can answer for the 2020 Orioles.
Will anything the Orioles do in 2020 be as important as this draft?
Considering pretty much every ounce of organizational energy outside of the major league staff went toward the draft last year when there was a season going on, it’s hard to imagine anything taking up this much bandwidth for the team until, well, next year’s draft.
From a business standpoint, the team was ready to market ballpark experiences and the charm of Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Some on the major league side viewed this as the first year of the rebuild, so it stands to reason that a lot of attention was going to be placed on the draft and player development again this year. Without a minor league season to develop players, all of the focus is rightfully on the draft.
There won’t be much drama wrapped up in watching the major league team lose in front of no fans, even in a shortened season with potentially more playoff spots. There will be plenty to be gained, however, from adding another Adley Rutschman-like figure to the farm system and another beacon of hope for the future.
Did the scouting overhaul truly take hold?
Part of the organizational changes over the past 18 months since general manager Mike Elias and company were hired were meant to unify the vision of the baseball operations department and destroy the silo mentality that came with clear divisions between analytics, amateur scouting and player development.
Last year’s purging of dozens of coaches, scouts and player development staff was meant to further address that vision, and the draft will be the first real chance to see how it has blossomed. In a typical season, it would be judged on some of the player development aspects in the minors, specifically the new hitting coaches and organizational restructuring to emphasize mental skills and proper training. That’s how the early moves to address the pitching side were made last year.
But what this draft will show even more clearly is what types of players this new player development staff is best equipped to work with, and how the Orioles are asking their scouts to find them. The top of the draft will be a “best player available” proposition. The rest will be as much a reflection of how the Orioles see the draft board as how they value players going forward.
Can six picks truly affect the quality of their farm system?
In 2019, the Orioles farm system spiked up organizational rankings for a variety of reasons. Chief among them was drafting Rutschman No. 1 overall, and the development of top pitching prospects Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall also played a part. But the Orioles’ depth improved as well, and in the offseason rankings at Baseball America, five of their 2019 draft picks were ranked in the organization’s top 30: Rutschman, shortstop Gunnar Henderson, outfielders Kyle Stowers and Zach Watson and shortstop Darell Hernaiz.
All of those picks came in the first five rounds, so there’s clearly the possibility for that kind of impact. With the possibility of no minor league season and not a lot of development time for those who are already in the system, the promise of these high picks could further bolster an improving farm system.
How can their financial advantage actually be an advantage?
Just how much the system improves will be related to how the Orioles leverage the draft’s largest signing bonus pool of $13.9 million for their six picks. In a traditional draft, the team could have spent a few second- and third-day picks on players with high bonus demands and signed them without sacrificing the ability to sign top picks.
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Without those later rounds, the Orioles’ advantage of the large bonus pool diminishes some. All it takes is another team using its last pick on a college senior who will sign for a tiny bonus to achieve the same kind of financial flexibility the Orioles have.
What will ultimately be to their advantage is the 30th overall pick, the first selection of the competitive balance round A. That’s where the Orioles can jump at the chance to take a player falling for bonus concerns and really spend big. Same goes for the second pick of the second round. The concern, however, is that other teams will draft talent over bonus considerations and worry about money later.
It all sets up for a situation like the Orioles’ use of the international bonus pool money for the 2018-19 period, when they decided that just spending the full allotment for the sake of spending wasn’t worth it.
How much will the overall rebuild be hurt by a shortened draft?
It would be foolish to say that it won’t affect the Orioles’ long-term plans, though they’re set up to at least survive, especially if the reported minor league contraction plans limiting teams to four affiliates goes through for 2021.
A pitching-heavy draft — as well as trades that essentially added two full rotations of pitchers in 2019 — and what could be an infusion of hitting talent means that the low-minors will be well stocked for 2021, even with just six selections.
What will hurt, however, is the development time lost for these new picks and the rest of the high-priority prospects the organization has brought in over the past few years. The 2019 draft class is viewed with tremendous importance in the organization, and their first full season is meant to set up a foundation for their development. This year’s draftees likely won’t even get that introduction to routine-building that comes in a player’s signing summer.
That makes for two draft classes, one smaller than the other, that will have the formative stages of their development affected by the pandemic. In that sense, the Orioles can be glad that this year’s class is only six players. But there’s no telling what the impact on those players or their plans will be for years to come.