In a way, this first season of the Baltimore Orioles’ rebuild is extremely important. Not so much for the final win-loss record of the major-league club, but for what happens to improve the outlook of future seasons.
Can the Orioles get the most out of right-hander Dylan Bundy and some of the underachieving bullpen arms? With the ability to offer playing time to fringe major leaguers, can they find some undervalued assets? (Outfielder Dwight Smith Jr. and catcher Pedro Severino are early, intriguing options.) And can they get some better performances to beef up their current selection of trade chips?
But in another way, anything that’s happening in Baltimore pales in comparison to what’s going on in the Orioles’ farm system. Not only for the ongoing development of the handful of players who are getting close to the major leagues, like outfielders Yusniel Diaz and Austin Hays, infielder Ryan Mountcastle, lefty Keegan Akin and others, but also for the growth taking place in the lowest levels of the system. The Orioles’ previous two first-round selections, left-handed starter DL Hall (High-A Frederick) and right-handed starter Grayson Rodriguez (Low-A Delmarva), have looked particularly impressive.
There’s some talent in all levels of the Orioles’ system; it would be rather ridiculous if there wasn’t, considering the Orioles traded away infielders Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop and pitchers Kevin Gausman, Zack Britton, Brad Brach and Darren O’Day at the trade deadline last season. But there is not nearly enough talent, something Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias made perfectly clear during his introductory news conference when he shared his goal of building an “elite talent pipeline.”
Cultivating the team’s existing talent is one thing. But Elias will get the chance to really make his mark in June, when the Orioles select first in the 2019 MLB Draft. Besides player development and any future trades, there are two things that will help the Orioles return to relevance: actually participating and putting resources toward international spending (which the Orioles are preparing to do under Elias) and hitting on a large number of draft picks throughout the next few years. The most valuable of those, of course, is that upcoming top selection.
A top draft pick is an extremely valuable commodity. It also may be a relatively easy one to make this year, as Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman is the clear frontrunner among the major prospect-ranking resources. A switch-hitter who’s offensively and defensively advanced, Rutschman is seen as a player who could move quickly through a team’s system. His sophomore season was phenomenal enough, with a .408/.505/.628 batting line, but his junior year has been even better: .433/.582/.793 through May 13, and he’s hit more home runs and drawn more walks than he did as a sophomore. College stats can certainly be deceiving, but Rutschman’s projection seems to match the production.
There are other intriguing draft options, including high school shortstop Bobby Witt Jr., University of California first baseman Andrew Vaughn and high school shortstop C.J. Abrams. But there’s nothing out there at the moment to suggest Rutschman isn’t the likely pick for the Orioles.
The Orioles have only ever selected first overall one other time in their history: in 1989, when they selected right-hander Ben McDonald out of LSU. Since then, the highest they’ve selected is third overall in 2010, when they drafted Manny Machado. Between 2007 and 2012, the O’s selected in the top five each year. This year’s selection is their first top-five pick since 2012.
It’s worth noting that in the last 33 years, only one catcher has been picked with the top overall selection: Joe Mauer in 2001. Before him, the last catcher selected in the top spot was B.J. Surhoff in 1985.
Among the Orioles’ history of first-round picks, just five have been catchers. And of those five, only one was selected with a top-10 pick: Matt Wieters in 2007. Wieters was a much-hyped prospect and had a few very good seasons, but he never ended up as the star player that many fans hoped he would be. As a switch-hitting catcher with a rocket arm and power at the dish, Rutschman’s comparison to Wieters is obvious.
Looking back at the best No. 1 draft picks of all time, many of them are high schoolers: Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr., Chipper Jones, Darryl Strawberry, Justin Upton, Mauer and more. Does that make it concerning that the Orioles may be leaning toward the college ranks with their first pick? In a word, no.
In a 2017 analysis for FiveThirtyEight, Neil Paine concluded that the trend of focusing on undervalued college talent wasn’t as beneficial at it had previously been, and that “most recent results say it’s now a toss-up whether high school or college prospects are more likely to pay off.” However, he also noted that “college hitters still appear to be far better bargains than high school ones.” College isn’t the advantage it used to be for pitchers, but it still appears to be one for position players.
It’s unclear how much that research matters in the case of Rutschman, who’s at the top of almost everyone’s draft board. Even at catcher, he’s the top-tier talent in the upcoming draft. That doesn’t mean there’s any kind of guarantee he’s going to be great. But, by all accounts, he represents the Orioles’ best chance to add an excellent player. There’s no question they need some of those.
Issue 254: May 2019