With Major League Baseball pushing the annual amateur draft back to the All-Star break to coincide with the league’s summer showcase, this week marks two months until the next prospects are selected by big league clubs to begin their professional careers.
For the Orioles, who pick fifth this year, the draft rates as about the most crucial part of their calendar yet again. The return of minor league baseball has been a boon for them, with so many of their prospects showing that the time away didn’t hamper their development too much.
But a shortened draft in 2020 and the ongoing health problems for No. 2 overall pick Heston Kjerstad, an outfielder who only recently got back onto the field after missing time with a myocarditis diagnosis, means they’re again in need of a talent infusion.
As such, draft preparation is well underway. Speaking during Sunday’s Orioles game on MASN, executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias was asked about some of the top pitchers in the draft and left his options open with two months until the draft.
“The Vanderbilt guys [Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker] are certainly on the radar screen,” Elias said on the broadcast. “There’s some other big-conference college pitchers out there. There’s even a high school pitcher we’ve got our eye on.
“It’s going to be a difficult decision this year. I think it’s going to be a very good crop, but we’re going to have a hard choice to make because there’s still a lot of guys that are really knotted up close — those high school shortstops, and you’ve always got to watch what the college bats are doing.”
Here are the best players available in each of those groups as the Orioles begin to pare down their list of possible picks at No. 5 overall.
The high school shortstops
The names in this group consistently near the top of the mock drafts are Texas prep shortstop Jordan Lawlar, California high school shortstop Marcelo Mayer and Georgia prep shortstop Brady House.
Lawlar seems to be emerging as the best overall prospect in the class and thus is a candidate to go first overall to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Given his Dallas roots, many prognosticators anticipate he won’t make it past the Texas Rangers at No. 2 if Pittsburgh doesn’t take him.
Mayer is the “leading candidate” to go third to the Detroit Tigers, according to ESPN’s most recent mock draft, which would likely leave House as the player left for the Orioles.
Mayer’s been a name at the top of the 2021 draft class for years, and could be a power-hitting shortstop to add to a group of well-regarded Orioles prospects at the position, including recent high draft picks Gunnar Henderson and Jordan Westburg and international free agent Maikol Hernández.
Each of the amateur shortstops is a consensus top-seven prospect among the rankings at Baseball America, MLB.com and ESPN.com. House is fifth at MLB.com, sixth at Baseball America and seventh at ESPN. ESPN has Mayer third, while MLB.com and Baseball America have him fourth. Lawlar is first at ESPN and second at the other two.
North Carolina prep shortstop Kahlil Watson seems to be the consensus fourth-best high school infielder, should the Orioles try to cut a deal and still keep that kind of upside. Watson has what Perfect Game calls “explosive tools,” and factoring in his ascendance over the last year or so showing that he is still developing his immense talent and his being a relatively young 18 years old at draft time will be factors the Orioles value.
The Vanderbilt pitchers
Breaking up those three infielders in most cases at the top of the draft rankings are a pair of perhaps generational arms in the Vanderbilt rotation in right-handers Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker.
Leiter, the top prospect in MLB.com’s and Baseball America’s rankings this spring, has dominated to the tune of a 2.10 ERA with 106 strikeouts and a 0.89 WHIP in 64 1/3 innings over 11 starts. Rocker has a 2.31 ERA with 110 strikeouts and a 0.89 WHIP in 74 innings. They entered the college baseball season as the draft’s two top pitching prospects and have done nothing to change that.
It would be a mild upset if either makes it to the Orioles at the fifth pick, and given this front office’s track record in prioritizing hitters with their most significant bits of draft capital and using what it believes to be a well-developed formula to identify and develop pitchers taken later in the draft, it would be a major upset for the Orioles to take one of them. That’s not to say it isn’t possible. But for the resources that such a pick and signing would take—especially for a draft-eligible sophomore like Leiter—and their predisposition to be wary of taking pitchers so early, it would be a surprise to see one of these two or any other college pitcher making a big three of Orioles pitching prospects with recent first-round picks DL Hall and Grayson Rodriguez.
Other college pitchers who pitch in big conferences but don’t pitch at Vanderbilt include Mississippi right-hander Gunnar Hoglund, Texas right-hander Ty Madden and Wake Forest right-hander Ryan Cusick.
The big-conference bats
Whether it was the consensus top prospect in catcher Adley Rutschman or an under-the-radar reach-down like Kjerstad, the Orioles under this front office have shown they like the relative certainty of projecting out a college hitter’s stats using the reams of data made available in major-conference play against the best competition possible.
A few names keep cropping up around the Orioles’ pick, given their predilection for college bats. Louisville catcher Henry Davis seems to be the top college bat on many public lists, with his value coming from his power bat, athleticism and arm behind the plate. There will be plenty of hand-wringing if the Orioles take another catcher with a first-round pick two years after making Rutschman the top overall pick, but it would be a pretty unkind view of the situation to dwell on that. Taking Davis would just be adding another potential impact bat to the mix. Who plays where can be figured out later.
Boston College outfielder Sal Frelick also has top-10 buzz, with more power than his small frame would suggest and speed helping him be a productive player in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Undersized outfielders and prospects from the Northeast are both more the dominion of the previous Orioles front office than this one, but Frelick would likely be in the mix here as well.
He wasn’t always the highest-rated outfielder in this draft class. Before the season began, that was Florida’s Jud Fabian, a young-for-his-class center fielder who started this season with disastrous strikeout issues and particular struggles with velocity but has cut down on his swing-and-miss of late and has 18 home runs, tied for second-most in the NCAA. If the Orioles believe in the fix, they might be able to get a player who almost certainly was high on their follow list in February for a lower bonus than they would have if not for his struggles.
Other first-round college bats could include Sam Houston State outfielder Colton Cowser, Miami catcher Adrian Del Castillo and UCLA infielder Matt McLain.
The high school pitcher?
Elias himself even sounded surprised when he noted the Orioles were drilling down on a high school pitcher in the draft, and considering the risk involved in investing so much in that kind of developing arm, it’s noteworthy that he even offered it up.
The top high school pitcher in most rankings is right-hander Jackson Jobe out of Oklahoma, who given his roots is getting comps to former Orioles top pick Dylan Bundy and has the stuff to back it up. Both Jobe and another well-regarded high school arm, right-hander Bubba Chandler out of Georgia, have two-way player potential.
It’s hard to really judge whether a development-driven organization would do such a thing and try to bring a player along as a hitter and pitcher. More likely, such a player would just pitch. And they’d really have to like him to make their top pick a high school pitcher.
July 11, Atlanta
Top five picks:
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