Throughout last week, the Orioles’ amateur scouting staff and other members of the organization gathered on Zoom to begin preparing for what figures to be another top selection in the 2022 Major League Baseball draft.
Baltimore’s exact pick, like that of all other teams, could change as part of whatever new collective bargaining agreement comes out of the MLB owners’ decision to lock out the players. Under the previous CBA, the Orioles would have the first overall pick, their fourth straight year drafting in the top five.
Their past five first-round picks have yet to reach the majors, though four of them were among Baltimore’s five prospects in Baseball America’s preseason top 100 rankings released Wednesday, including catcher Adley Rutschman and right-hander Grayson Rodriguez at No. 1 and No. 6, respectively. Even as the Orioles wait for the first draftee of executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias’ tenure to reach the majors, the success of players they have selected thus far — and the progress of the picks they inherited — gives them confidence in their approach to drafting and development.
“Obviously, no one has a crystal ball,” Brad Ciolek, the Orioles’ director of draft operations, said last week. “And that’s what makes this so difficult. If we could sit here and say, ‘This guy’s absolutely going to be a major league talent,’ everyone would be able to do this. So the one thing that I at least can hang my hat on is the performance of the guys we have drafted and the success they’ve had at the minor league level thus far. And I’m obviously very encouraged by how a lot of those guys are performing.”
Two of the Orioles’ prospects recognized as top 100 talents reflect the system’s progress since Elias took over ahead of the 2019 season. Baseball America’s rankings entering that campaign didn’t include Rodriguez, who months earlier was drafted 11th overall by the previous front office. After his first full season in the minors working as part of Baltimore’s refined pitching development program, Rodriguez was ranked 35th. He went into 2021 ranked 22nd overall and pitched his way into the top 10, earning the status of the sport’s top pitching prospect that he carried through Wednesday’s rankings.
After the Orioles took Rutschman with the first overall pick in 2019, they used their second-round selection to take Gunnar Henderson out of an Alabama high school. He played at the complex level that first summer, then spent 2020 training at the team’s alternate site at the home of their Double-A affiliate in Bowie. He returned there by the end of 2021, playing at three minor league levels while turning 20 years old. He was Baseball America’s No. 57 prospect, one of only nine second-rounders to make the list. Left-hander DL Hall, the Orioles’ top selection in 2017, came in at No. 52, with outfielder Colton Cowser, Baltimore’s latest first-round pick, ranked 98th to round out a farm system considered one of the game’s best.
Orioles director of player development Matt Blood said players who earned two promotions, such as Henderson, were among his highlights of 2021, with infielder Jordan Westburg and outfielder Kyle Stowers — Baltimore’s highest ranked prospects outside of the top 100 — also doing so.
“We believe that just outside of your comfort zone is where learning really occurs,” Blood said last week. “You want to be playing against players that are a little better or more mature than you are so that you’re being challenged by them. Ideally, you’re younger than the people you’re playing against, and you’re not quite as mature in your skills as the players that you’re playing against. And once you’ve sort of caught up in either of those areas to the level of competition, then we want to we want to push you again, so that you know you’re re-challenged and exposed and forced to make adjustments to continue to improve your game.”
Major league promotions, Blood noted, have different circumstances, given the goal there is to win rather than develop. Although the current Orioles have been among the majors’ worst teams, early success stories in the minors thanks to the pairing of the team’s new player development program and the amateur scouting department’s collection of draftees is not by coincidence.
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After each draft, Ciolek said he and his staff put an emphasis on evaluating which areas they can approve, and ensuring they’re seeking the types of players the development group is also targeting. Throughout the coming months, Ciolek’s staff will get input from various departments, noting the importance of the top selection for the franchise’s future.
“Over the last couple of years, we have done a great job at the end of the year of circling back with player development and making sure we are completely aligned with them in terms of what they are looking for as far as building blocks are concerned with draft prospects,” Ciolek said. “Having player development coaches involved has been impactful and beneficial, and we will continue to seek and increase their involvement.”
Some of those throughlines in those targeted players have been clear. With early picks spent on Rutschman, a center fielder in Cowser and shortstops such as Henderson and Westburg, “it’s clearly evident that we like guys that we think profile up the middle defensively,” Ciolek said.
The Orioles have devoted most of their early selections under Elias to position players, with only two of their 18 selections in the top five rounds being used on pitchers. But Ciolek, echoing Elias in the wake of those drafts, said the Orioles extensively scout pitchers and have them throughout their draft board, only for one of them not to be at the top when it’s time to pick. He said the team has a “proprietary internal checklist” developed by director of pitching and major league pitching coach Chris Holt, among others, for what to look for in pitchers. The traits targeted include strike-throwing and a particular fastball profile, as well as secondary pitches “we are able to mold and turn into devastating weapons.”
Yet this figures to be another year the Orioles pass on pitching in the first round. In Baseball America’s list of the top 100 draft prospects, the top six and 10 of the top 11 are position players, with a pair of Georgia high schoolers in outfielder Druw Jones — the son of former major league All-Star Andruw Jones — and shortstop Termarr Johnson leading the way.
With junior college seasons starting shortly, the Orioles “are ready to roll,” Ciolek said, preparing to add to a system that has greatly — and quickly — improved in recent years. The possibility of selecting another No. 1 pick just as Rutschman might be reaching the majors is an enticing one, allowing the Orioles to have a new name near the top of next year’s prospect rankings.
“We’re excited that we get the chance to obviously add another impact player to the system, and picking [first overall] is great because you will ultimately get to decide who you think is the best player in the country,” Ciolek said. “Bottom line is we want to be able to make an impact not only with the first pick, but as of today, we’re slated to pick three players in the top 40 overall selections. We’re going to make sure that we do whatever we can to find as many impact players not only for those top three selections, but throughout our entire class.”