Hopefully, Orioles executive general manager Mike Elias learned some lessons from his time in Houston.
The Astros had three No. 1 picks in the MLB Draft from 2012-2014, with Elias taking a leading role in the Astros’ scouting efforts. Only one of those players worked out.
The Orioles are relying heavily on the draft as they embark on the second year of their rebuild. One year after landing catcher Adley Rutschman with the No. 1 overall pick, Elias will pick second behind the Detroit Tigers in the 2020 draft, which will be held June 10-12 in Omaha, Neb., ahead of the College World Series.
The Tigers finished the 2019 season at 47-114, while the Orioles went 54-108, six games better than the previous year.
The good news is this year’s draft is much deeper in pitching, an area of need for the Orioles, than last year’s.
“An average pitching class would be better than 2019, which was one of the worst pitching classes we’ve ever had, and most scouts I’ve talked with are extremely excited about the amount of pitching talent, particularly in the college crop,” said Carlos Collazo, a national writer for Baseball America, which focuses on top talent at all levels of baseball.
“There are several arms who have top-of-the-rotation sort of profiles, and that certainly wasn’t the case a year ago,” Collazo added. “There’s talent at the top of the college and high school classes, and I think the depth of both of those demographics is strong as well.”
Elias was elated to grab Rutschman with the top overall pick last June, and the 21-year-old catcher is expected to be a long-term fixture in the Orioles’ lineup.
The Orioles hope to land a similar impact player in June. While the 2020 draft is deep with pitching talent, the Orioles could also be poised to take a positional player. Collazo said the Orioles should be able to find an impact player if they do their proper due diligence prior to the draft. The Orioles’ first eight picks last year were position players.
“We saw the Orioles go hitter-heavy in the first draft under their new leadership, and they could do that again this year. It’s a well-rounded draft with good hitters in addition to strong arms, but I do think there are going to be a lot of interesting options on the mound if that’s the direction they decide to go,” Collazo said.
Houston tried to build the foundation of its starting rotation internally, but that strategy did not work out. The Astros took Stanford right-hander Mark Appel with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 draft. However, Appel never made an impact for the team. He was later traded to the Philadelphia Phillies before injuries forced him into retirement.
In 2014, the Astros took left-hander Brady Aiken from Catholic High School in Southern California. He never signed because of a disagreement involving his bonus and some health issues. Aiken re-entered the draft in 2015 and was selected by the Cleveland Indians with the 17th overall pick and later underwent Tommy John surgery.
Houston had better luck with position players, selecting shortstop Carlos Correa with the first overall pick in 2012. He developed into the AL Rookie of the Year in 2015 at age 20 and played a key role in the Astros’ run in the 2017 World Series.
The Astros had three consecutive 100-plus loss seasons from 2011-2013 but won 100-plus games every year from 2017-2019, the culmination of a complete rebuild. The club won the World Series in 2017 and appeared in the Fall Classic again in 2019, losing to the Washington Nationals.
The Orioles hope to engineer a similar arc, but with even more success, especially when it comes to developing starting pitching.
Emerson Hancock, a right-handed pitcher for the University of Georgia, has emerged as a top prospect in the 2020 draft. If Hancock is taken by the Tigers, the Orioles could grab Arizona State first baseman Spencer Torkelson, who is viewed as the best player available at that spot. Torkelson hit .353/.449/.702 with 22 home runs as a sophomore in 2019 and could be a long-term fixture in Baltimore.
However, there are several top-tier pitching prospects who will be available, most notably Georgia right-hander Cole Wilcox and high school right-handers Mick Abel and Jared Kelley.
Vanderbilt infielder Austin Martin is also an intriguing prospect. The sophomore led the SEC in average (.392), on-base percentage (.486) and runs (87) in 2019. He also earned first-team all-SEC and SEC all-defensive team honors.
“I think Hancock is a name that will be linked to all of the top three teams, but I don’t know that he’s necessarily the favorite to go first,” Collazo said. “There is a solid group of three players — Hancock, Torkelson and Martin who all have solid shots to become the first overall pick depending on what happens in the spring.
“I think a guy like [infielder] Nick Gonzales at New Mexico State might be talked about in that group of players as well. He had a terrific summer. At this point in the year it’s just hard to say with any certainty who a team is taking. We’re basically guessing with the information we have now, and there is plenty of time for that to change from now until the draft.”
Louisville baseball coach Dan McDonnell led USA Baseball’s highly talented College National Team this past summer. Martin and Torkelson were part of that squad, and McDonnell was impressed with both players. Torkelson was on the team during the summer of 2018, too.
“Both have superstar talent and are great kids,” McDonnell said. “They’re All-Americans between the lines and off the field. It goes hand-to-hand so often. Spencer did it both years, so he was sort of the unofficial captain of the team. He just had so much respect from the other players. He was a better defensive first baseman than I realized because the bat can overshadow the defensive ability as a young college player.”
Martin has the versatility to play multiple positions. He was an outfielder early in his career and then moved to the infield. He played mostly third base last spring for the Commodores, who won the 2019 College World Series. McDonnell said Martin can hit for average and power and steal bases.
“It seems the value of those multi-position guys is at a premium,” McDonnell said.
McDonnell said college baseball provides its players with the resources, facilities, exposure and competition to prepare them for the pro level. McDonnell reeled off a list of former college players who are MLB stars, such as infielders Alex Bregman, Anthony Rendon and Trea Turner. Last year’s NL Rookie of the Year, Pete Alonso, is also in that group.
“What the fans get is a guy they’re familiar with because of the star power coming out of college,” McDonnell said of drafting college players early in the draft. “The pro teams get a guy who can get into the big leagues pretty darn quickly, which from a financial standpoint is real value. The high school guy you see on draft day will take a handful of years before you see him in the big leagues. They just have more of an adjustment.”
The Orioles have plenty of time to do their research on these players. What’s clear is that any future success hinges on effective pitching.
“Everybody knows that to be competitive in this league, in this division, you have to have pitching and you have to have guys that are able to throw strikes,” Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said during the season. “You have to have bullpen guys be able to come in and shut the door down, hold leads and keep you in the game. I feel at some point we will get to that.”
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Vanderbilt Athletics