Since executive vice president Dan Duquette took over the Orioles front office, he has held that a key component to maintaining success is drafting and developing homegrown players. But recent adjustments to the annual draft process have made it difficult for teams like the Orioles to put together strong draft classes each year while focusing on remaining competitive at the big league level now.
Two years ago, the Orioles didn't have a draft pick until the third round (No. 90 overall) after they forfeited their first two picks for signing qualifying-offer free agents Ubaldo Jimenez and Nelson Cruz. And in each of the past three years, the Orioles have traded away their competitive-balance pick — selections which beginning in 2013 have been awarded to baseball's small-market and low-revenue teams — and the significant amount of slot money that goes with each pick.
When this year's draft begins Thursday, the Orioles' first pick won't be until No. 27 overall, a compensatory pick for losing qualifying-offer free agent Wei Yin Chen. They forfeited their first-round pick, which was at the time 14th overall, to sign right-hander Yovani Gallardo, who also was a qualifying-offer free agent. Had the Orioles kept that pick, it would have been their highest since taking Kevin Gausman with the fourth overall selection in 2012. So, in two of the past three seasons, the Orioles have not had a first-round pick.
Also take into account that the Orioles have traded away drafted prospects in trade-deadline deals over the past few years — left-hander Josh Hader went to the Houston Astros in the Bud Norris trade in 2013, and right-hander Zach Davies was dealt to the Milwaukee Brewers for Gerardo Parra last season — and the Orioles have had to compromise their prospect stock in order to improve for the stretch run. That doesn't include the deal that sent left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez, who was not drafted but signed as an international free agent, to the Boston Red Sox for Andrew Miller at the 2014 trade deadline.
"I think it kind of speaks to the difficulty," MLB.com draft and prospect analyst Jim Callis said. "It's hard to contend and build a farm system at the same time. Yeah, you can graduate players to the big leagues. But a lot of time when you're contending, you're going to be trading prospects like they've done with some of the players they've drafted, maybe trading prospects to add pieces and then you win more games and you pick lower and then you sign a free agent and you give up picks. It is very tough, especially under the current system."
Despite losing their first-round pick for Gallardo, the Orioles still have four picks in the first 91 selections this year.
"With our first three picks we should be able to get a guy we like," Orioles scouting director Gary Rajsich said. "Independent of what other teams do, there should be players there that we like, which is good. So rather than have the draft determine who we get, we'll be able to get a player that we like. … We've had a wider group of players to see this year. I've seen maybe 80 to 100 players this year, whereas when we're picking 90 for our first pick, we won't see that many. But with the way the picks are spread out, we need to widen our scope."
The Orioles' 25-man roster includes nine homegrown draft products, not counting catcher Caleb Joseph, who is on the disabled list. That number increased to 14 on the organization's 40-man roster. That doesn't include international signees such as Jonathan Schoop or Dariel Alvarez, but only drafted players.
Of the Orioles' drafted homegrown players in the majors, all but one was drafted by Joe Jordan, who was Orioles scouting director from 2005 to 2011 before becoming the farm director of the Philadelphia Phillies. Gausman is the only player on the 25-man roster who was drafted under Duquette and Rajsich.
"I would actually say it's been as much about poor development as anything else," ESPN.com analyst Keith Law said. "… They haven't developed a hitter at all since [Manny] Machado, although [2013 second-rounder] Chance Sisco … has the potential to be a pretty good player. It seems like no one has entered this system in the last few years and gotten better, while several guys have gotten worse."
While they have yet to produce major league contributors other than Gausman, the past four drafts under Duquette and Rajsich are difficult to evaluate. As the Orioles went through 14 straight years of losing seasons, they were rewarded with high first-round picks, which led to the opportunity to select high-impact players like Matt Wieters (fifth overall in 2007) and Machado (third overall in 2010). But as the Orioles have played well since 2012, their first-round picks have been 22nd, 17th (forfeited for Jimenez), 25th and 14th (forfeited for Gallardo), respectively.
"When you have a competitive team like we have — we've had a good record compared to other American League teams the last several years, so our record is as good as anybody's at the major league level — you don't have the luxury of drafting early in the draft because of the way the draft is set up," Duquette said. "You see a couple of clubs that were built recently, like Kansas City, where they had [one of the] top picks in the draft for several years, in the top 10 for several years in a row. They drafted well and those players came up through the farm system together and they got to the big leagues and they matured and they put together a pitching staff, and they had a lot of success.
"Recently, the Orioles haven't had that luxury, but we've still been able to bring some players into the organization to help our club. And if we're going to be competitive year in and year out, we don't want to be drafting in the top 10, right? I think our fans would prefer we pick later in the draft and make the most of those choices to build the team. From that perspective, I hope it continues because that would mean we've had a decent year in the big leagues."
Rajsich said that drafting lower offers a unique challenge.
"You're going to get fewer impact guys," he said. "So we have to work harder in the later rounds. … We have to do a better job because the guys in the top five picks, they're the ones who are going to get all the recognition. … And if you get one of them, all of a sudden your organization is better. But as long as we're developing guys that other clubs want or guys who can come up here and contribute for [manager] Buck [Showalter], we're pretty pleased with it. Because it's hard to do. It looks easy, but it's really hard."
The Orioles have also been unlucky with some high-round picks. The team's second-round pick in 2012, right-hander Branden Kline, had Tommy John elbow reconstruction last year. The Orioles' first-round pick in 2013, right-hander Hunter Harvey, hasn't pitched in affiliated ball since 2014 because of various injuries.
Despite Harvey's health issues, the Orioles' 2013 draft remains promising. It might not bear fruit for the next few years because it was so high school heavy, but experts say Sisco will be a major league contributor, even if they're unsure whether he will do so as a catcher. Last year's minor league Player of the Year, first baseman Trey Mancini, was the Orioles' 2013 eighth-round pick out of Notre Dame. Fourteenth-round outfielder Mike Yastrzemski should be knocking soon as well.
Fourth-rounder Jonah Heim has been lauded as a catcher, but still must show he can hit. Add in that the Orioles traded two quality lefties from that draft, Stephen Tarpley and Steven Brault, to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Travis Snider, and it has the signs of being a quality draft. But the jury is still out on whether any of those pieces will make an impact.
"I think it's kind of early to draw a conclusion on whether these guys know what they're doing or don't know what they're doing," Callis said. "So much changes. These guys' stock goes up and down. If you had seen [2012 fourth-round pick] Christian Walker two years ago, you would have thought, 'Great pick.' Now it's kind of like Christian Walker, you don't know what he is. That's the way I feel about Trey Mancini. I don't quite know what to make of him. You have to give him credit. He has hit. But I just think it's kind of early to kind of know."
Because the Orioles signed Jimenez and Cruz in 2014, they didn't have a pick until 90th overall. But Duquette was fine with giving up those picks given the contributions he received from those two players on a team that advanced to the American League Championship Series.
"We got immediate value there," Duquette said. "So if you look at the entirety of it, we exchanged those draft picks for Nelson Cruz to win the home run crown. You'd have to say that was a plus for the organization, right? They're all not that clear."
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Last year's draft was a "head-scratcher," said one analyst, not because the team drafted Florida State product DJ Stewart, who has struggled early in his pro career, but because the analyst thought the picks that followed — high school shortstop Ryan Mountcastle and high school pitcher Jonathan Hughes — could have been had in later rounds.
All in all, Rajsich said he believed the organization has done well over the past four years.
"I think we've done pretty well," Rajsich said. "We've been able to make trades to help our big league club win over the past four years. That's more important than having one of the highest-ranked farm systems. So there is value. I think that some our minor league players are having good years. They're starting to get recognition in the industry, which improves our value also, so I think our guys have done a pretty good job."
This year's draft appears to be strong on high school pitching — seven of the top 16 MLB.com prospects are high school pitchers, not to mention a strong second tier of high school arms, Callis said. Even though prep pitchers might take longer to develop and might have greater injury risk, the Orioles haven't been scared off by high school arms and won't be this year.
"We draft a high percentage of pitchers and try to speed their development for the big leagues," Duquette said. "That's a sound philosophy. I'm sure we'll continue along those lines. … It takes a little longer to develop high school pitchers, so you have to have a different timeline, but we have drafted some high school players and some college players and we'll sign several pieces again this year."