Baltimore Orioles

Five things we learned from the Orioles’ 2020 draft

Picking second overall in this week’s MLB draft, the Orioles had their chance to make an early mark on the draft and took it.

Their selection of Arkansas outfielder Heston Kjerstad second overall turned expectations for how the top of the first round would play out, and cast their efforts in the shortened five-round draft not as a way to amass the best talent available but as a way to game the draft financially.


Whether that’s actually the case is hard to tell until they disperse their nearly $14 million in bonus pool, though the perception alone hurt the players they ended up taking and likely shaded the whole draft.

But it’s still so early in the regime of executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias and company that every major event like this is an opportunity to learn tendencies and try and glean their intentions, and this draft is no different.


Here are five things we learned after the 2020 Orioles draft:

1. This is a weird way for the honeymoon period to wind down

The Orioles bucking the public consensus among mock drafts and analysts that had them taking a higher-rated player such as Vanderbilt’s Austin Martin instead of Kjerstad at No. 2 overall has a segment of the fanbase that was already looking for a reason to not like what the new front office is doing to turn on it.

Perhaps because there’s no baseball, fans have had time to do months of research to strengthen their draft bonafides and they had real reasons to distinguish Martin and the rest from Kjerstad.

More likely, expectations grew that there was one correct pick and anything other than that was wrong out of a bit of an echo chamber.

The Orioles kept their interest in Kjerstad quiet, and even speculation in some reports connecting them cited other clubs. If they were connected at all to him in the weeks leading up to it and this truly wasn’t an excuse to save money or begin gaming the signing bonus slot system, maybe fans would have viewed him as a suitable alternative the way they did Asa Lacy, Nick Gonzales or Zac Veen.

(This falls on us as well; Kjerstad wasn’t mentioned until the day of the draft, and only then in passing).

Instead, fans did not find out that this player, few were familiar with leading up to the draft, was actually a fast-riser with a great power-hitting background and a swing made for Camden Yards.

The same methodology that went into the Orioles’ 2019 draft, which was widely well-regarded, as well as all those “Astroball” drafts, contributed to the six players who topped the Orioles’ draft board when their picks came up this year.


This was what they were hired for, and without any evidence that they’d fumbled that duty since joining the Orioles to back it up, it seems like that shine has worn off a bit.

2. Their draft model really favored data and projections from the 2020 season

Veteran trend-spotters noted that the Orioles went heavy on college bats at the expense of all of them, but in all cases, it seems like there was a lot of weight on both what they did in the shortened college season in 2020 and what they did last summer — the two most recent sets of scouting looks and data available to them.

“We have a really good analytics team,” Elias said Wednesday. “Sig Mejdal and particularly Michael Weis, who is our draft data analyst, and we tried to do it as scientifically as we could. Simulate the rest of their seasons, and I’m sure other clubs attempted the same thing, and that was a portion of our process this year with every player."

Kjerstad was having an outstanding first month of his college season, with both him and 30th overall pick Jordan Westburg building on standout summers with Team USA and in the Cape Cod Baseball League. Westburg was the Most Valuable Player in that league in 2019, and was having his best season yet at Mississippi State.

There was less track record with draft-eligible sophomore Hudson Haskin, but he was en route to replicating an impressive freshman year at Tulane and hit well in the New England Collegiate League last summer. Third-round pick Anthony Servideo didn’t have much success on the Cape last year, but his .390/.575/.695 slash line with five home runs represented a massive step forward in his shortened junior season at Mississippi.

It goes beyond the actual statistics, as there’s valuable exit velocity data and countless other metrics to come from even a small sample of games. It’s almost as if the Orioles’ board was made up to rank as if the season went on without interruption.


“They were weighed pretty heavily, just because the fact that this is not your typical spring, so we essentially had to supplement the looks that we had on these guys from four weeks of the college season with data points,” domestic scouting operations supervisor Brad Ciolek said.

“But also, what’s most important is every single one of these guys that we selected, there was a balance between scouting and analytics. It wasn’t just one or the other. We got together over the last month or so and really harnessed in on this group of players and ultimately put these guys in order based upon the whole body of work and weighing both sides of the equation.”

3. They might not spend their whole bonus pool, and that could be hard to explain

Without taking a player who would command an outsized signing bonus out of their six picks, from Kjerstad up top through the rest of the selections, it’s hard to envision how the Orioles will manage to spend the nearly $14 million allotted to them for their six picks.

When Elias took over in 2018 and had inherited a large portion of the team’s $8.25 million in international signing bonus pool money from that year, with several million of that coming from trades that helped dismantle the major league team, there was an expectation that all that money would be spent as the international operation ramped up.

Most of it was spent or traded, but some wasn’t, and he made clear that just having it available to spend didn’t mean they would. The draft — a five-round draft in which players only get $100,000 of their signing bonuses now and then the rest annually over the next two years — is a completely different animal, though.

And for an organization that’s slashed major league payroll to the bone, owns its own television network and is in the midst of a homegrown rebuild, leaving the ability to spend money to enhance that on the table because of how their board fell might ring hollow for plenty of frustrated fans.


4. They really need these hitters in the system, even if it wasn’t drafting for need

Imagine a world where the 2020 season happened as planned for the Orioles: Austin Hays would start in center field and lose prospect eligibility; Ryan Mountcastle would have been up by midseason and Yusniel Diaz might not have been far behind, even if he didn’t have to be added to the 40-man roster until the fall.

That would basically mean all the hitters they took high in the 2019 draft — including Adley Rutschman, Gunnar Henderson, Kyle Stowers, Zach Watson, Darrell Hernaiz and a few others — almost exclusively make up their stock of position player prospects. The only ones really outside that group are Adam Hall and Ryan McKenna, and those guys will likely use their speed and defense to impact games before their bats do.

So adding more college bats in the form of Kjerstad, Westburg and Haskin early and then taking Florida high school third baseman Coby Mayo late makes for another group of hitters to try and balance things. It’s not drafting for need, but it’s also kind of a need.

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Who knows what the minor league affiliate system will look like for the Orioles in 2021, but the Orioles will suddenly have two A-ball affiliates worth of highly-drafted outfielders and an infield group including Westburg, Servideo, Mayo, Henderson, Hernaiz, and Hall, among others. It will be a fascinating group of talent to watch develop.

5. Chris Holt’s job hasn’t changed, but maybe the urgency has

This Orioles front office inherited several drafts worth of pitching talent from Dan Duquette, including top prospects Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall plus high-minors depth such as Michael Baumann, Dean Kremer, Alexander Wells, Zac Lowther, Keegan Akin and Bruce Zimmermann, among others.

So, they cited their draft board and waited to take pitching last year until the middle of the second day of the draft. The group of targeted arms they ended up with from the eighth round on went to the Gulf Coast League and Short-A Aberdeen and, as a group, pitched to a 1.85 ERA with over 10 strikeouts per nine innings.


It was clear the team had a plan for what it wanted in pitchers and that includes drafting the types of arms they believe will succeed and they know how to work with. That’s where Holt, who was promoted to director of pitching after the 2019 season, comes in.

The most heartening aspect of the miserable 2019 season for Orioles fans had to have been the progress the minor league arms made, with three affiliates leading their leagues in pitching and strikeout numbers going up across the board.

Without drafting a pitcher until Iowa prep right-hander Carter Baumler in the fifth round, the Orioles will have to see if they can supplement this with the undrafted free-agent crop that can begin signing this weekend.

Otherwise, Holt and his staff of pitching coaches will essentially get to work with what they have to try and break a pitching development hex that many won’t get over until they see it changed at the major league level.