In one of Mike Elias’ first acts as executive vice president and general manager of the Orioles in 2018, when he was taking over a threadbare organization and had just gotten rid of the holdover scouting and player development heads, he made it clear changing the team’s direction wasn’t going to be a problem.
He did so in a way that hasn’t been as blunt since, even though he has spoken about the scouting and player development prowess he and assistant general manager Sig Mejdal brought from Houston,
“I think we have the best track record,” he said two Decembers ago, before amending that to being just among the best.
Nights like Wednesday show they still believe that — and their surprise selection of Arkansas outfielder Heston Kjerstad at No. 2 overall when many thought he’d go in the top half of the first round but not the top two will be one of a handful of inflection points that determine whether that rings true of their entire Orioles tenure.
Elias said after the first round was completed that taking Kjerstad wasn’t part of a strategy to take a lower-rated player who will sign for less money at No. 2 overall so they could take a higher-level player and pay him a larger portion of their bonus pool allotment of nearly $14 million later in the five-round draft.
He laughed as he said that, though, because he says it’s hard to say when the player hasn’t signed yet. But the Orioles knew what Kjerstad would sign for before they took him, and the teams that picked between that second overall spot and the No. 30 pick when they ended up with Mississippi State shortstop Jordan Westburg may well have blown up that strategy by taking some of the high-ceiling pitchers Elias sought. He admitted as much after the draft.
The confidence with which Elias spoke of the two picks they made, though, shows they still believe in this draft being a productive one despite its short length and the circumstances it’s been held in. In Kjerstad and Westburg, Elias said he believes the Orioles got “two dominant college players.”
That belief is born from a lot of other beliefs.
They believe that in their scouting operation, which shed decades of experience last year in letting go several longtime scouts but kept one — Ken Guthrie — who has known the Kjerstad family for nearly a decade and could provide exclusive insight on one of the draft’s top prospects.
A spring without baseball meant many scouts, analysts and supervisors all got to weigh in on the pick, though, and Kjerstad had one of the most valuable things an Orioles draftee could have: a productive college track record.
Kjerstad started from the day he arrived at Arkansas and spent two full seasons on College World Series teams, leaving a trail of data and information that painted a full picture of who he was as a player even before what would have been a pivotal junior year.
Same goes for his time on the US Collegiate National Team last summer, and Elias and the Orioles were quite taken by him batting .448/.513/.791 with six home runs in 16 games this spring. Elias said the Orioles and many other clubs did projections to forecast how the canceled season would have played out. They believe Kjerstad’s “would have been a historic season had it kept going,” he said.
With rare exceptions, the draft model that Elias and Mejdal recreated from their time with the St. Louis Cardinals and Astros has done its best as more data is accumulated. College hitters have the most data available of any type of player. When you have great stats, and you have a lot of them, the margin for error in the forecast is lower.
They also believe in their revamped player development system on several fronts. Another draft of ignoring pitchers on the first day shows plenty of belief both in their system of identifying the right pitchers later on in the draft, and in the program imported from Houston with director of pitching Chris Holt to bring out the best in the arms they have. Last season was a showcase of that in the minor leagues.
But these high-level bats — and the Orioles have used a lot of draft capital on them since Elias took over — will be the responsibility of the hitting coaches that new director of player development Matt Blood hired this offseason to utilize the growing landscape of technology in modern hitting. They were getting strong reviews in spring training, but didn’t get a chance to show the same types of improvement that Holt’s arms did last year.
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Yet still, they believe in, well, their beliefs. Blood had the team’s minor leaguers in a Zoom book club after the pandemic hit to read a book on growth mindset, which is a mantra of Elias and Mejdal.
Kjerstad showed he had it by refining his approach when he didn’t have to this spring to make his talented profile even more appealing. He ticked off all the times he was doubted at Arkansas while also indicating that he’d be happy to prove those who thought the Orioles should have taken someone else wrong.
That shouldn’t be for a player to answer for, though, and when Elias had to answer for Kjerstad over Vanderbilt’s Austin Martin — the consensus No. 2 player in the draft, he could.
“It was just a matter of picking out the right one for us,” Elias said. “With Heston, we feel really strongly and confidently that he’s going to play a good right field and be able to stay there. It’s a really strong profile. It’s a classic profile for that position, and I think there was a lot of certainty attached to that.”
Still, going against a consensus that proved to be wrong more often than not in regards to Wednesday’s draft has become a risk, even as the Orioles took a player they regard as having a lot of certainty to fit the slugging right field profile Kjerstad has attached to him.
They believe that he’ll be that because they believe, quite strongly, in everything that goes into their scouting and player development philosophies. Those belief systems came to Baltimore with just as many high-profile hits and misses, and grew from each.
This 2020 draft will be a fascinating addition to one of those lists, because they believe pretty strongly in an outcome that hardly anyone could envision before Wednesday’s draft began.