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Five takeaways from Orioles GM Mike Elias’ pre-draft video call: ‘We have choices that we like’

Two days before he and the Orioles front office decide on the next cornerstone addition to their rebuilding project and begin a crucial stretch in which they have three of the first 39 picks of a shortened MLB draft, executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias outlined on a lengthy videoconference Monday afternoon how the team is preparing for the second overall pick, what might go into that decision, and more.

Elias, in his second draft in charge of the Orioles after being hired in November 2018, said the entire front office has enjoyed having something as significant as the draft to prepare for in a time without baseball, with the entire front office, including player development staff, having a role in player analysis.

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All that will produce what could be another pivotal draft class in the Orioles’ efforts to build a homegrown contender. Here are five takeaways from Elias’ remarks on their big decision at No. 2 overall, the financial implications in a shortened draft, and what comes next for the team after the draft.

They’re still undecided on the second overall pick …

Elias said on the call that he doesn’t expect the Orioles to have the top two spaces on their draft board settled until Wednesday, but that the organization is currently “actively discussing” five players for that spot, with some more likely than others to be their choice at No. 2 overall.

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“We have choices that we like, and we’re trying to pick between players that we like,” Elias said. “And that’s a good thing and the most important thing. But we have not made a decision yet as to how we’re going to finalize that grouping, and we may not until the day of the draft until all of the info for the whole draft is available, including signability information. There’s still medical information trickling in, even at this stage.”

The consensus group of players that those five could come from includes Arizona State’s Spencer Torkelson, infielders Austin Martin of Vanderbilt and Nick Gonzales of New Mexico State, Florida high school outfielder Zac Veen, and college pitchers Asa Lacy of Texas A&M and Emerson Hancock of Georgia.

Elias said positional preference or need goes out the window with the opportunity to choose second from the top pool of players available in the draft, and that the only preference thus far is to “do well with the pick,” considering that even a high pick’s odds of not making the major leagues are significant.

“We’re trying to make the best investment that we can, and you can only pick amongst what the draft is offering you that year,” Elias said. “And it’s different at the top of the draft every year.”

… but they think they know what the Tigers will do at No. 1

As the Orioles prepare to pare down their pool of candidates for the top pick, they’re doing so in an environment in which the consensus among analysts and mock drafts is that Torkelson will be the Detroit Tigers’ pick at No. 1 overall.

When Detroit had the first overall pick two years ago, it took the no-doubt college star in pitcher Casey Mize. The Tigers may take that road again, though Elias said he doesn’t expect to find out for sure until late Wednesday.

“Usually when the same player is pegged to the same team No. 1 on the same lists over and over and over, there’s an outcome that I think tends to happen,” Elias said. “I think we’re preparing for all possibilities, but the level of mystery surrounding that pick this year seems lower than average.”

For that reason, many projecting what the draft could look like see the Orioles as an inflection point for the rest of the top 10 because of the sheer number of options they have and what those routes could mean for other teams. Some years, there are no real questions until deeper in the top 10 picks. This year, there’s no consensus beyond No. 1 because of the Orioles’ uncertainty.

Weighing under-slot savings in a short draft

Part of the reason teams are unsure of what the Orioles are going to do is the belief that they could draft a player who might sign for less than the recommended bonus slot for No. 2 overall ($7.789 million) in order to use that bonus money to compensate players above the recommended slots for their other picks.

This strategy came into vogue when the draft instituted bonus restrictions in 2012, and Elias and assistant general manager Sig Mejdal were with the Houston Astros when they used the under-slot strategy to secure star infielder Carlos Correa with the first overall pick.

The Orioles, by virtue of their high picks each round and the first pick of the first competitive balance round (No. 30 overall) this week, have the largest bonus pool available at $13.89 million.

But Elias said the short draft “will constrain your ability to spread bonus pool money around, or at least the opportunity to do so,” and create more pressure to allocate that money quickly than in a traditional 40-round draft.

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“If a team does sign their first pick for less than slot, they’re going to be under more pressure to apply that savings in the first few rounds whereas in a normal draft, if you don’t sign one player with all of that money with an early pick, you can kind of gradually spread it out over the rest of the draft. Also, the pools themselves are just smaller, so it’s just less money. It is something that we’re having to think about.

“But with that said, even in the Astros-Carlos Correa example, we feel it’s important that if you’re taking a guy with a high pick, that he’s your favorite guy. It’s nice when the stars align like they did in that instance. I think as it turned out there, the club was right with its evaluation, so we’re focusing on taking the guy that we feel is the best player for us, the best investment, and we will listen to and consider signability factors, but it’s important that we maximize our draft class, [and] getting our first pick right is the most important part of that.”

Remote scouting is valuable but not ideal

As smoothly as the Orioles believe their virtual draft preparations have gone, there are some aspects that he acknowledges can’t match up to the real things.

“Let’s pretend that there was another team that got to scout all through the spring, I would think that team would have a big leg up on us, so there’s a lot of value to the spring scouting process and the normal draft process,” Elias said.

For an organization that has come under fire for dismissing so many of its scouts over the past year, the fact that Elias noted that seems to make clear that in the future the organization will be using its team of front-office draft analysts only to supplement, not replace, the in-person insight that area scouts can provide.

He noted that there was also a lot of baseball to watch in the South before the coronavirus pandemic shut that down to create a basis for scouting reports, and much of the work that’s been done digitally with video and data analysis has happened as they’re “leveraging the work that the field scouts did in the summer and in years past.

“Their work is as important as ever, it’s just less concentrated on what happened late in the spring,” Elias said.

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The Orioles front office was also able to make most of its planned visits in the winter to players’ homes or college campuses to get a feel for makeup and personality, Elias said. Those traits, he added, can be “the biggest area that can cause a high pick to fail” other than health.

“It’s often the intangible things that separate themselves from one another, and we put a lot of work into it,” he said. “We have met with the candidates in person this winter, I did personally, and there are others that we did not that we’ve met over Zoom, and that worked pretty well.”

He still believes there will be a major league season

Just before Elias’ call, ESPN reported the league’s latest proposal to the players in a contentious back-and-forth aimed at getting major leaguers back on the field this summer.

As players insist that ownership live up to the salary proration the two sides agreed on in March during their good-faith negotiations, pessimism has grown about whether those talks will be successful.

Elias, though, remains confident there will be a major league season.

“I think we’re going to play,” he said. “I’m not sure what the length and structure of the season is going to be. That’s really hard to predict right now with the discussions that are ongoing, but I’m very confident that we’re going to play.”

Beyond that, Elias said, he’s not sure what will happen to the draft picks and undrafted free agents the Orioles sign, but his hope is that they and the rest of the team’s minor leaguers have some form of baseball available to them shortly.

“We’re all waiting with a lot of anxiousness for that opportunity to present itself,” Elias said.

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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