For an Orioles front office that is trying to build a homegrown talent base, another shortened draft isn’t the best way to do it.
Still, that didn’t stop them from putting together a talented (if not star-crossed) 2020 draft class, and this week was no different.
The 2021 Orioles draft class will be remembered as the most college-heavy in a string of college-heavy drafts, with Sam Houston outfielder Colton Cowser taken at No. 5 overall and nine college position players selected in the first 10 rounds.
All have productive college seasons on their resumes, allowing the Orioles a bit of data-driven certainty as to what kind of outcomes could be possible in the pros. But as simple as that might seem on its surface, there’s a lot that goes into putting together a full draft class like this.
Here are five things we learned from the Orioles’ 2021 draft.
1. Drafting college hitters might be the best thing the team could do to shorten its rebuild.
Among the many reasons the Orioles set their sights on and selected Cowser with their top overall pick, domestic scouting supervisor Brad Ciolek said that the Sam Houston star could join what’s a talented group of high minors prospects in the big leagues sooner than later and potentially end the string of 100-loss seasons at Camden Yards.
Passing on a potential high school superstar to get a solid big leaguer who is three years older but can be in the majors faster isn’t the best long-term decision, but it doesn’t seem like one the Orioles made here. In the case of Cowser, they’re betting that by this time next year, he’s in Double-A and still as impressive at the plate as he was in college.
There’s not much stopping any of these players should they get to Low-A Delmarva this year and impress over the winter or start at High-A Aberdeen. Even if they start at Low-A, they won’t be that far behind the development curve.
Second-round pick Connor Norby can add another potentially impressive bat to a growing crop of infielders, while the Orioles’ next three picks — Reed Trimble, John Rhodes and Donta’ Williams — will form their own wave of versatile outfielders behind 2019 early picks Kyle Stowers, Zach Watson and Johnny Rizer.
The shortened draft last year — and the lack of Orioles international classes in the middle part of last decade that would have delivered a dozen or so 21-year-olds to affiliated ball this summer — mean there’s plenty of opportunity for these college stars to get playing time immediately.
By prioritizing hitters who don’t expand the strike zone or swing-and-miss inside it, the Orioles are trying to eliminate some of the potential stumbling blocks in player development.
Even if the ceilings aren’t as high, a bunch of high-floor producers littering this farm system in a year or two won’t be a bad outcome.
2. Worrying about how the Orioles allocate their draft money seems beside the point.
Have the Mike Elias-led Orioles consistently taken a player they can possibly sign to a smaller bonus for purely strategic reasons, or does the skewed alignment of what they value most and where the industry thinks players will be selected mean the Orioles get a discount without seeking one?
Even if it’s the latter, it’s hard to prove that point for sure. What’s clear, though, is that there’s more than one way to move forward, with the Orioles taking seven-figure high school players in 2019 and seeming to decide those picks were best used on younger college players this year.
Draft-eligible college sophomores Trimble and Rhodes might not command well above-slot value, but bring a nice bit of youth and variety to a system that hasn’t added many high school players of late.
If the Orioles could trade down and accumulate draft picks to get a deeper talent pool like NFL teams do, they’d probably think long and hard about it. The baseball equivalent is to try and spread bonus pool money out over as many picks as possible to add better talent deeper in the draft. Only the baseball version seems to be cause for much hand-wringing, though.
3. The faith in their pitching program isn’t exactly risky, but could be a creaky limb.
One of the strongest held beliefs this era of Orioles management seems to have is in the efficacy of its pitching program under Chris Holt, which is why they’re strictly adhering to a draft board that elevates college hitters at the expense of pitchers in the early rounds.
They’ve taken just two pitchers in the top five rounds in the past two years, choosing the later rounds to target arms with strike-throwing ability, good fastballs and secondary pitches they feel they can develop.
There have also been trades that have added a half-dozen starters since they passed on pitching in 2019. They’ve acquired six pitchers from the Los Angeles Angels, including a group of five starters headlined by Kyle Bradish at Triple-A, plus left-hander Kevin Smith from the New York Mets last summer.
Believing they can extract value in trades by targeting pitchers they might value more than other clubs — and prioritizing productive college hitters in the draft before pitchers that meet their narrow criteria — puts a lot of faith in the pitching coaches at the minor league level.
So far in 2019 and this summer, they’ve all lived up to the challenge. The low-minors pitching staffs are full of pitchers who miss bats and are showing varying levels of promise. Building an entire farm system worth of pitchers that way, though, is doing so without a safety net.
4. The top of the farm system is probably unchanged after this draft.
With catcher Adley Rutschman among the best prospects in baseball and Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall entrenched as the top two pitching prospects in the organization, it stands to reason that Cowser will basically bump 2020 top pick Heston Kjerstad out of the No. 4 spot in their farm system rankings and settle there the rest of the season.
If it were possible to set aside the questions about Kjerstad’s health, which his recurrence of myocarditis last month prevents, it would be interesting to weigh the 2020 No. 2 overall pick’s power potential with the do-it-all, hit-for-average profile of Cowser. That won’t be necessary for now at least.
Beyond that, the farm system is quite unsettled beyond young shortstop Gunnar Henderson. Infielders Jordan Westburg and Joey Ortiz are real risers, though Ortiz is out for the year with a shoulder injury. Pitchers Keegan Akin, Dean Kremer and Bruce Zimmermann have all graduated, but there’s still Mike Baumann’s unique season to consider, plus the breakouts of Bradish and Smith. Yusniel Diaz and Jahmai Jones have to factor in somewhere, and so do the rest of the top few picks after Cowser.
With all the new faces and graduation, the Orioles’ farm system hasn’t been shaken up this much at once since the 2018 firesale trades.
5. Everyone should remember the Orioles’ preferences rather than the draft media’s next year.
There will again come a time when the Orioles look at a prep superstar with a high price tag with their top pick and can’t resist (hello, Elijah Green?), but until it happens, that should no longer be the expectation. Their top pick was an easy one in 2019, but to the extent they had a decision to make, they took the relative certainty of stardom for Rutschman over whatever potential upside high school shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. might have brought at No. 1 overall.
In 2020, they didn’t believe in Austin Martin’s up-the-middle defensive profile and went for what they thought was a low-floor, potentially high-impact bat in Kjerstad. Same goes for Cowser over a group of high school shortstops that was well-regarded and Vanderbilt ace Kumar Rocker.
So when the Orioles are picking near the top again next year and the draft media is trying to forecast the selection and making rankings, don’t focus on the part where they say the Orioles like the college players lower in their top-10s for bonus discount purposes. It’s probably best to dive into the player and look for signs as to why the Orioles might fall for him.
Or, they can just take Green. Or an ace. But until they do, there’s no reason to expect anything different.