Mike Elias’ Orioles play nearly every day for six months every year, but because they lose nearly two-thirds of the time — the highest rate of anyone in the major leagues since the start of 2019 — the focus has been largely put on the club’s growing and improving prospect base to generate any kind of warm feelings toward the organization.
That means, simply, that Sunday is as important as anything the Orioles will do all year, with the fifth pick in the MLB draft presenting what the executive vice president and general manager believes is a pretty binary opportunity despite the uncertainty that comes with the amateur draft.
“We feel that we should be getting an impact player with this pick, and that is our goal,” Elias said. “I think if that doesn’t happen, we’ll feel like we failed with the pick.”
Fortunately for Elias and the front office and scouting staff, the fifth pick isn’t a bad place to be in this draft. There might be bad outcomes for picks backed by sound processes, as the Orioles certainly learned in 2020 when they bet on the power profile of Arkansas outfielder Heston Kjerstad with the second overall pick but haven’t seen him in a game yet due to a serious bout with myocarditis — inflammation of the heart muscle.
There are also great outcomes—the Orioles’ three preceding top picks in Adley Rutschman, Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall are now among the game’s top prospects and align in that order atop the club’s farm system rankings.
At least one player should be available at No. 5 overall who could join that caliber of prospect. Elias said it’s a good year to have the fifth pick, to the extent such a year exists.
“I think there are some years where you’d be looking and you’re outside looking in on the talent at five,” Elias said. “I think it’s pretty good where we’re at. I can’t complain about the sort of feel of whether we’re getting our full value of the five pick. It feels like a good group at five.”
Elias and the Orioles’ front office should be operating from a position of strength given their track record of drafting and developing players with the Houston Astros and the overall talent of the 2019 and 2020 draft classes. They’ve identified talent in trades well. But the Kjerstad situation and general restlessness at another 100-loss pace mean there will be increased scrutiny on the No. 5 pick and whether it conforms to what little public information is available on the selections ahead of time.
On a basic level, it’s easier to spend a year with the perception that a staff hit on two top-five picks and had one fall victim to unfortunate circumstance than the alternative, which would mean only the obvious Rutschman pick has panned out and nothing else has.
Their choice — after the Pittsburgh Pirates, Texas Rangers, Detroit Tigers and Boston Red Sox have theirs — will come down to preference. If they look at a major league rotation that has an 8.12 ERA since top starter John Means went down, acknowledge the attrition in getting young pitchers to the majors and succeeding there, then decide they need another top arm in the mix, one of Vanderbilt’s Jack Leiter or Kumar Rocker, or Oklahoma prep right-hander Jackson Jobe could be available.
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That’s not exactly how the baseball draft works, though.
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If simply adding the highest-upside talent is their preference, then adding one of the four top high school shortstops expected to go quickly in the draft—Marcelo Mayer, Jordan Lawlar, Kahlil Watson, and Brady House—is the play. Elias said that group, eventually, could come to define this draft. Adding a player like that would solidify what should never be in doubt: that the Orioles are impervious to outside pressure and are committed to getting as many potential elite players in the system regardless of talent.
Recent history shows that their forecasting model might favor a college hitter, the type of player whose career created plenty to compare to past outcomes and create an idea of what they can become going forward. Louisville catcher Henry Davis is the top one available and would be a slam-dunk pick for the Orioles should he be available at No. 5. Outside of that, it’s a bit of a drop-off in public rankings to Sam Houston State outfielder Colton Cowser, Boston College outfielder Sal Frelick and UCLA infielder Matt McLain.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone, though, if those players’ productive college track records have them in higher esteem in the Orioles’ view. They believed Kjerstad was the best pick last year and took the ancillary benefits of being able to sign him for below-slot and spread the money around. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to imagine them seeing someone like Cowser the same way at No. 5.
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Which way they go won’t be capricious. These preparations essentially began after the last draft, and with this year’s pushed back over a month, the Orioles have had more time to prepare for this pick than any before.
They’ll have it mapped out no matter what happens before them, and every path will likely lead to a sound pick. Then, there’s only hope that it stays that way. All that’s at stake is the goodwill required to continue this deliberate rebuild with the current product they field at Camden Yards.
“It’s a huge opportunity, it’s a high-stakes game, and you look historically at the picks, and it’s just the way baseball works they don’t often do very well,” Elias said. “But when you do get the right one, it can be an aircraft carrier for your franchise for six, seven, 10 years, so it’s not easy to do, the odds are against you, but just knowing that possibility’s there, when you talk about the players that have the kind of talent that these guys do when they’re even being considered the top of the draft, you sense the importance of it.
“No one has a crystal ball, all kinds of stuff happens, you do the best you can, you bring the best info and the best work ethic to the process that you can, and you make a decision and you take it from there. But over time, you get multiple stabs at these high picks, when you’re rebuilding and you try to do as well as you can and I hope we do.”