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How the Orioles adjusted their scouting and evaluations for this year’s shortened MLB draft

A draft that will be held in unprecedented circumstances this week — remotely instead of conducted from teams’ respective draft rooms, with few if any in-person scouting looks at players, and just five rounds instead of 40 — will be the latest opportunity for the Orioles under executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias to continue the process of developing the next wave of talent from within the organization.

And after a few weeks of adjusting to the new circumstances, team officials believe the infrastructures already put in place over the past year, plus some changes in approach thanks to the coronavirus pandemic that caused so much disruption to their processes, have them ready to operate as well as anyone this week.

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“I think the mechanics of doing it remotely will be tricky for everybody, but in terms of the way that our scouting department has prepared, it’s been great and I’m not surprised,” Elias said. “We have a lot of info at our disposal nowadays, outside of what you need to gather in a ballpark in the springtime. We’re just leaning on that a little bit more than in a normal year.”

For domestic scouting operations supervisor Brad Ciolek and his team of scouts and analysts, the adjustments came early. Instead of getting those spring in-person looks, MLB suspended all scout travel quickly after spring training was shut down. They asked all the scouts for their in-person reports quickly from the games they did see, then moved to having the area scouts and cross-checkers watch video instead.

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Ciolek said they made clear to the scouts that it wouldn’t be the same conviction in their reports as they could get from going to a ballpark and watching infield/outfield work or batting practice, and talking to those around a player before watching him play. But without being able to do that, they sought to tap the scouts’ experience and knowledge in different ways.

“We basically said, ‘Look, we need to find a way to supplement the looks that we got in person,’ and that’s essentially what we did,” Ciolek said. “I think we had more reports turned in this year than we ever had, since my time with the Orioles, simply because time that was going out and traveling, game-to-game, getting on planes, is now being utilized as far as waking up each day, going to the computer and watching the game on video.”

Even with the draft pared down to five rounds, and thus the player pool reduced from around 900 to around 300 in terms of those the Orioles will seriously consider drafting, Ciolek said the volume of reports and looks on players is more vast than it would be in typical circumstances. Draft calls between scouts and supervisors began over a month ago, and he said many more voices can have opinions on a player instead of just an area scout or cross-checker who saw the player in person.

“Now, everyone has something to bring to the table because they’ve at least seen these guys on video because they know and have some idea of what their tools are and what they can do between the lines,” Ciolek said.

Elias, who in late 2018 took over a heavily siloed baseball operations department that didn’t have the technological resources or integration he’d grown used to with the Houston Astros, said the advances made in the past year-plus have made their ease of transition this year much more palatable.

“The tools and some of the video services that we use, we were getting it online last year and a lot of that process was happening during the spring, and the January, February part of the winter,” Elias said. “But we have all that settled. We have a full analyst team that works on the draft year-round from the office, so that was already up and running.

“Our scouting department had a year under its belt working with this front office, working with the decision tools that we like to use and the scouting process, and kind of hearing the language of our approach, so the scouts themselves, when it was time to come off the road and go home and revert to like a video-based method of analyzing their players, I think they were a little bit more comfortable with that.”

That comfort comes after Elias got rid of decades worth of experiences in a group of longtime scouts last August to change the complexion of the amateur scouting department, though the club made several hires to supplement that area.

What their front office and scouts have found is a draft that, when it comes to the second overall pick, gives the Orioles the potential to draft an impact bat in Arizona State’s Spencer Torkelson, Vanderbilt’s Austin Martin, New Mexico State’s Nick Gonzales, or Florida prep outfielder Zac Veen, with college pitchers Asa Lacy of Texas A&M and Georgia’s Emerson Hancock also at the top of draft boards.

Ciolek would allow only that the Orioles looking for “guys that can be significant difference-makers and impact players once they do get up to Baltimore” with their six picks — Nos. 2, 30, 39, 74, 103, 133. They didn’t take a pitcher with any of their top six picks last year, but see college pitching as more of a strength in the draft in 2020 than in 2019.

“It’s been an interesting process, I will say that,” Ciolek said. “It’ll be interesting to see how we did a few years down the road, utilizing this and our resources.”

2020 draft

  • Wednesday, 7 p.m.: Round 1, Competitive Balance Round A; TV: ESPN, MLB Network; Orioles picks: Nos. 2, 30
  • Thursday, 5 p.m.: Rounds 2-5; TV: ESPN2, MLB Network; Orioles picks: Nos. 39, 74, 103, 133

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