As the Orioles return home to Camden Yards this week to finish out the first half of the season, the background noise around the ballpark and the team’s offices will be centered around the 2021 MLB draft that begins Sunday with the team selecting fifth overall.
For a rebuilding club so set on creating a championship foundation through its scouting and player development, such a pick is crucial to what the Orioles want to do as the losing continues apace for a fourth straight season at the major league level.
It’s too early yet, and too much is up to other teams, to say who the Orioles will pick at that fifth spot. These five questions, however, and the team’s answers to them, will go a long way to clarifying their approach and narrowing down the list of candidates available to them.
1. How does the Heston Kjerstad situation influence the pick?
The elephant in the Orioles’ draft room is the uncertain future of 2020 top pick Heston Kjerstad, who the Orioles took second overall as a somewhat off-the-radar pick but believed had big-time left-handed power that could make him an impact bat down the line.
Before he could participate in any kind of organized baseball, though, he had a bout with myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle). Kjerstad got back to the team’s spring training complex in Sarasota, Florida, to begin what was expected to be a slow process to ramp up to baseball activities but a reoccurrence shut him down again.
Such a stroke of bad luck for him and the organization is detrimental on several levels, but could impact how this pick goes Sunday. They didn’t take many pitchers the last two years because of the inventory already in the farm system from preceding drafts, so it’s not unreasonable to say what’s already in the system impacts what they do in the draft.
If there was another potential elite bat at the top of the farm system climbing the minor league ranks, would this pick be different? Will they need to re-fill what the expected from Kjerstad with another similar player?
2. Will this be the year they take a pitcher high?
Entering this spring, the two top names in the draft were Vanderbilt right-handers Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter — each potential frontline starting pitchers at a big-time school with big-time potential. As the season has progressed, however, the group of prep shortstops in this draft has risen to consideration for the first few picks. That means it’s possible that either of those pitchers could be available at No. 5 for the Orioles.
The assumption has been that after the issues this front office had with the Houston Astros taking pitchers Mark Appel (2013) and Brady Aiken (2014) first overall, and the last few drafts in which they went away from pitching in favor of taking bats high and targeting arms they know they can develop well later in the draft, that the Orioles won’t take a pitcher with their top pick again this year.
This year, domestic scouting supervisor Brad Ciolek said “there are a lot of pitchers that we do like” in a pre-draft media call, and the possibility certainly remains open that the Orioles end up with one of those high-profile arms.
From a perception standpoint, taking someone like Rocker who could get to the majors quickly and help a thin big league staff in the coming years would be a win. It might not be blowing up long-held philosophies for that, though.
3. If the best player available is a catcher, will they take him?
Louisville catcher Henry Davis, the best college bat in the draft in many public rankings, doesn’t last past the Orioles’ pick at No. 5 in several recent mock drafts. Davis hit .370 with a 1.145 OPS and 15 home runs this year for the Cardinals and boasts standout plate discipline and a throwing arm.
Selecting Davis would certainly be in keeping with the Orioles’ recent predilection for getting a potential impact bat with a college track record high, but that trend started with 2019 top pick Adley Rutschman, who is also a catcher. Positional considerations such as that aren’t really a factor in the MLB draft often, and nothing Rutschman has done in the minors so far suggests he’s anything other than the Orioles’ catcher of the future and one of the best prospects in all of baseball.
Taking Davis, though, would add a player who could potentially move around the field positionally and still provide a ton of value with his bat. Rutschman being with the Orioles wouldn’t have anything to do with that.
4. Will a high school player give any insight into the timeline of this rebuild?
With Rutschman, 2018 top pick Grayson Rodriguez, and 2017 top pick DL Hall (albeit with Hall on the shelf with an elbow injury), the idea has held that when that group gets to Camden Yards as soon as early next year, the Orioles will be ready to start investing in the major league team and preparing to win imminently.
Would taking one of the potentially special high school shortstops that could be available at No. 5, with Jordan Lawler, Marcelo Mayer, Khalil Watson, and Brady House all among the top players at that spot, mean the Orioles aren’t as close to ready as they seem?
It’s not that simple, even if that will be the perception. They’ll take one of those players if they feel they’re potentially the best player long-term, and there’s a high hit rate of this profile of player being a productive major leaguer. The Orioles have more infield prospects climbing the system now than any time in recent memory, so such a player would have time to develop while closer-to-the-majors players like Jahmai Jones hold the fort and recent draft picks such as Gunnar Henderson, Jordan Westburg, and Joey Ortiz continue their promising development.
Taking a high school player who might be years away won’t do much to calm the fears that this rebuild will continue at a crawl. But the Orioles would likely rather do it right and deliberately than do it quickly and poorly.
5. How will the money part work?
When the Orioles made the surprise selection of Kjerstad in 2020 and signed him to a $5.2 million bonus — over $2.5 million below the pick’s recommended slot — they freed up bonus allotment to give more than the slot allotment to three of their late-round picks.
That was required because of the five-round format of that draft, but if the Orioles want to do that again, the first pick they make doesn’t have to be the one to receive a smaller bonus than the slot calls for. In other drafts under this new system, teams have used picks in the back half of the first 10 rounds for cost savings without sacrificing the type of talents they get with their first-day picks.
Even in a 20-round draft, it’s more possible to do that than it was with five rounds in 2020. Any speculation at this point that the Orioles are going to run back an under-slot strategy is, at this point, based on what they did last year and nothing terribly new. They’re still in the process of lining up their list of first-round candidates.
What’s to come?
Whatever high the Orioles might have been riding after sweeping the Houston Astros last week will have worn off thanks to this weekend’s rough sweep to the Los Angeles Angels, and there’s no respite as they face the Toronto Blue Jays and Chicago White Sox at home before the All-Star break.
The Orioles have played 14 games against teams who were below .500 all season, the fewest such games of any this season. These next two opponents obviously don’t qualify, which will make for 76 games against winning teams in their first 90. Rebuilding can be unpleasant on its own; that doesn’t help matters.
What was good?
Cedric Mullins is always the answer, but another good week for Austin Hays has him climbing to get back to the level of his longtime pal. Hays started the Orioles’ four-run rally in Sunday’s sixth inning and hit .360 with a double and two home runs this week.
He wasn’t himself coming back from his most recent hamstring issue, but his play over the last 10 games will be an encouraging sign to show that Hays is still capable of impressing when he’s healthy.
José Iglesias was a fantastic presence for the Orioles in 2020 and an absolute force in their lineup when his quadriceps injury allowed it, but one thing he wasn’t was a patient hitter. He walked three times in all of 2020 and had eight entering Sunday’s ninth inning when Cole Sulser walked him for the Orioles. His 3% walk rate was third-lowest in all of baseball among qualified hitters. But that leadoff walk came around to score and hand the Orioles a second walk-off loss in three games against the Angels, leaving manager Brandon Hyde fuming.
“Iglesias doesn’t walk,” Hyde said. “That can’t happen.”
On the farm
Double-A Bowie left-hander Cameron Bishop and High-A Aberdeen first baseman J.D. Mundy were the Orioles’ minor league pitcher and player of the month in June, respectively.
Bishop pitched 22 shutout innings over five games and struck out 32 against 10 walks while allowing seven hits. Mundy hit .284 with a 1.015 OPS and eight home runs between Low-A Delmarva and Aberdeen in June.
Tuesday, 7:05 p.m.
TV: MASN; RADIO: 105.7 FM