Days ahead of the 2021 Major League Baseball draft, Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said Friday that the team’s intensive work on the No. 5 overall pick began with 12 players and has been whittled down from there.
With the draft fast approaching, he said the “heartbeat is starting to go” in the draft room as they prepare for another pivotal pick in this protracted rebuilding effort.
“We’re getting close,” Elias said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen ahead of us. I could probably take a guess, but you just never know. I think we came into this with 12 or so players under serious discussion and we’ve definitely narrowed that down, but it’s just sort of a tradition and just the way these things go that you don’t really decide until right before the pick.”
The strength of the draft, Elias said, will be the group of four high school shortstops who are expected to be a part of the first 10 picks. Regarding the draft’s top pitchers, Vanderbilt stars Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker, Elias said “the odds are one of them is on the board” at No. 5 overall and the Orioles are “considering both of them very strongly.”
Their caginess around the surprise 2020 selection of Arkansas outfielder Heston Kjerstad at No. 2 overall, however, means that there’s no way to know for sure which way they’re leaning for the fifth pick this year.
The top 12 names that they considered, though, likely mirror the consensus of the draft rankings around the league. Here’s a sampling of who the Orioles could be picking from at pick No. 5.
The high school shortstops
Jordan Lawlar, shortstop, Dallas Jesuit (Texas) HS
When the Orioles drafted catcher Adley Rutschman first overall in 2019, their other option was a Dallas-area, do-it-all shortstop, Bobby Witt Jr. They could get a chance to add a comparable player at No. 5 overall. Like Witt, Lawlar has the potential to be a prototypical star at shortstop with an advanced bat, good speed and sound defense.
Mock drafts earlier in the spring had Lawlar going No. 1 overall to the Pittsburgh Pirates, but that speculation has cooled some, leaving the possibility that Lawlar might be around at No. 5 for the Orioles to add to their improving infield depth. The Gatorade Texas state player of the year is No. 1 overall by Baseball America and No. 3 overall by MLB.com.
Marcelo Mayer, shortstop, Eastlake (Calif.) HS
The top-rated player at MLB.com and Baseball America’s No. 2 overall prospect distinguished himself from the rest of this year’s talented group with a great spring season in California. His left-handed swing and control of the strike zone are both assets the Orioles value, and MLB.com’s Corey Seager comp would create an interesting parallel if he joined an Orioles organization that says the same about 2019 second-round pick Gunnar Henderson.
Mayer, though, is a no-doubt long-term shortstop. This combined skill set almost assures that he won’t be available when the Orioles get their chance to pick at No. 5.
Kahlil Watson, shortstop, Wake Forest (North Carolina) HS
Watson was always in the first-round mix this season, but his ascent this spring made the top tier of shortstops a four-man group instead of three. While not necessarily physically imposing, Watson has shown over the past year that he’s still growing his game and improving, a trait the Orioles value in their selections.
At present, though Watson has the athleticism to play anywhere on the diamond and the actions for shortstop, with a big left-handed swing that allows him to get to his power and bat-to-ball skills that prevent him from being punished for selling out for power. Watson is ranked No. 6 overall at Baseball America and No. 4 at MLB.com.
Brady House, shortstop, Winder-Barrow (Georgia) HS
A year ago at this time, House was the top player in this draft class with power to all fields and a cannon of an arm at shortstop. His stock fell a little over the summer, but he’s rebounded for a good spring season and kept his place among the top prep players in the draft.
The combination of consistent hard contact and potential power upside will be what attracts the Orioles, who have drafted bigger, athletic shortstops in the past few years with little regard for whether they can stay on the position in the long term.
House ranks No. 7 in Baseball America’s top draft prospect ratings and No. 8 in MLB.com’s.
The college bats
Henry Davis, catcher, Louisville
The top college bat on the board this year, Davis isn’t the kind of catcher Rutschman is defensively but more than makes up for that with his potential impact left-handed bat. Davis hit .337 with a 1.001 OPS over three seasons with the Cardinals, smacking 15 home runs this year with 31 walks against 24 strikeouts while hitting .370 with a 1.145 OPS.
Davis is rated No. 4 in the draft by Baseball America and No. 5 by MLB.com. With college hitters both the Orioles’ preference of late and the easiest to project, they’d likely be thrilled if he made it to their pick.
Colton Cowser, outfielder, Sam Houston State
With 2020 a lost year, so many of the typical experiences a college player can have outside his school season were gone with it. But Cowser got to play on the US Collegiate National Team as a freshman and showed well there against top-level talent, assuaging concerns that his .354 average with a 1.170 OPS and 24 home runs over three seasons in the Southland Conference resulted from the mid-major competition.
Cowser, at No. 10 in MLB.com’s rankings and No. 11 at Baseball America, might not be the most popular pick at No. 5 if the Orioles make it. But the markers are there as a projectable college performer that he could be their target, and maybe sign for less than the recommended slot bonus of $6.187 million so the Orioles could pay more for above-slot players later.
Sam Frelick, outfielder, Boston College
Similarly, Frelick is a college bat who ticks a lot of boxes for what the Orioles are seeking with a high pick like this. There’s the improvement aspect, as he took to center field full time in 2021 and was named the Atlantic Coast Conference Defensive Player of the Year. There’s the offensive performance, as he hit .359 with a 1.002 OPS as a junior, and there’s the projectability as his bat took a step forward this year.
Like Cowser, Frelick (No. 9 at Baseball America and No. 11 at MLB.com) isn’t in the top tier of players but could be an under-slot target if the Orioles go that route.
Matt McLain, infielder, UCLA
There aren’t many college infielders in play for the pick at No. 5, with McLain the lone option should the Orioles look to supplement their improving infield crop with a more developed college player with their top pick.
McLain went to school despite being the Arizona Diamondbacks’ first-round pick in 2018, and was a three-year starter who played all over the field and improved as his time in the Pac-12 progressed. He hit .333 with nine home runs and a 1.013 OPS in 2021, and is rated No. 10 at Baseball America and No. 12 at MLB.com.
Jack Leiter, right-hander, Vanderbilt
The son of longtime big league starter Al Leiter, the younger Leiter is a draft-eligible sophomore who is widely expected to be the first pitcher taken in Sunday’s first round. The No. 2 prospect at MLB.com and No. 3 at Baseball America dominated in four outings before the 2020 shutdown, then had a 2.13 ERA with a 0.84 WHIP and 179 strikeouts in 110 innings as Vanderbilt went to the College World Series final this year.
Leiter’s mid-90s fastball has all the modern-day traits that allow it to miss bats in and above the strike zone, and he complements it with a pair of breaking balls and changeups. It would be a surprise, though, if Leiter were available to the Orioles at No. 5.
Kumar Rocker, right-hander, Vanderbilt
It would be less surprising, though a little unthinkable this time last year, for Rocker to be available. He was the consensus top pitcher in the country in 2019 and is basically the same guy, but he’s been passed by others in this draft class with Baseball America slotting him in No. 5 and MLB.com No. 6.
Rocker had a similarly dominant college career to Leiter, striking out 179 in 122 innings with a 0.93 WHIP and a 2.73 ERA as a junior. His power slider is one of the best pitches in the draft, but issues with his fastball velocity and effectiveness have led to questions about how it will play in the big leagues.
Jackson Jobe, right-hander, Heritage Hall (Oklahoma) HS
A star Oklahoma prep pitcher in the vein of Dylan Bundy, Jobe is a near-lock to be the first high school pitcher off the board thanks to a potentially elite slider and mid-90s fastball that highlight his four-pitch mix.
While high school pitchers are inherently risky, especially right-handers, Jobe is ranked No. 8 in Baseball America’s draft list and No. 7 at MLB.com.
Ty Madden, right-hander, Texas
The non-Vanderbilt edition of the top college arms list lost some contenders to injury this year, and Madden is the best of the rest. He has an unconventional over-the-top delivery in a similar vein as Orioles prospect Kyle Bradish, a pitcher the club values highly.
But he’s just No. 9 on MLB.com’s rankings and No. 12 on Baseball America’s. It’s unlikely the Orioles will reach down for a pitcher if they take one at all.
Day 1 (Round 1): MLB Network, ESPN — 7:07 p.m.
Day 2 (Rounds 2-10): MLB.com — 1 p.m.
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Day 3 (Rounds 11-20): MLB.com — noon