The 2020 MLB Draft will proceed — albeit on a much smaller scale than previous years because of the wide-range impact of COVID-19.
Nonetheless, that’s a positive development for the rebuilding Orioles.
The club is looking to infuse talent throughout the organization, and the Orioles should be able to land a high-impact player like Vanderbilt’s Austin Martin or Arizona State’s Spencer Torkelson with the second overall pick.
MLB and the players’ union were able to work out a deal that allows for an abbreviated draft with no fewer than five rounds and as many as 10. The draft could start June 10 as is currently scheduled or could be pushed back to as late as July 20.
Because competition has been shut down at every level, the Orioles will have to rely on their previous scouting reports to assess potential selections. It’s not an ideal situation, but the club is ready to adapt.
“We can still evaluate players using video and data and update their scouting reports, and I’ve given our staff some pretty specific instructions about how we want them to spend their time while they’re housebound and I’m extremely confident that we’ll be as prepared or more prepared than any other team given the way our department is set up and the way they’ve been working,” general manager Mike Elias said in a recent conference call with reporters. “We’ll be in good shape for this draft.”
MLB Pipeline senior writer Jim Callis said franchises will adjust to the challenges with the coronavirus and a smaller draft. Many of the top players, especially at the collegiate level, have already been scouted and teams have enough data to confidently make a selection.
“It’s clearly not optimal but it’s not as bad as the average fan might think,” Callis said. “You’ve done a ton of your scouting the summer before. You’ve seen the college players in the summer leagues — the best against the best.”
Maryland baseball was off to a 10-5 start before the season was cut short, and head coach Rob Vaughn was impressed how the players were getting better each week. Vaughn has spent much of his time away from the diamond making sure his players are still performing well academically with online classes.
“There’s really no playbook for this,” Vaughn said. “We’re just trying to support the players any way we can.”
The Terrapins have several players that might draw the interest of MLB clubs, most notably outfielder Randy Bednar (Landon), a NCBWA preseason third-team All-American, catcher Justin Vought, outfielder Chris Alleyne, left-hander Tyler Blohm (Archbishop Spalding) and perhaps lefty Sean Fisher (Parkside).
Vaughn said the players are working out at home to stay sharp. Some of the players have batting cages in their backyard and access to weight rooms.
“I guess you could call the beauty of it is they’re not any different than big leaguers right now,” Vaughn said. “Obviously, some big leaguers might have their own gym in their 40,000-square-foot house they live in. But it’s really the same thing.
“Teams aren’t stupid. They know these guys have not been in a baseball environment in two, three, four or five months, depending on how long this goes. Guys that are going to be drafted, the scouts know what they can do. For me, the No. 1 message I sent to them is you have to keep yourself healthy.”
In addition, MLB teams also have a solid handle on the top high school prospects.
For example, Jack Bulger, a catcher for DeMatha Catholic in Hyattsville, Md., is on the radar for several big-league clubs. Last season, he batted .545 with six doubles, three triples and five home runs and 32 RBIs in 77 at-bats and was named the 2018-19 Gatorade Maryland Baseball Player of the Year.
MLB teams were able to get a close look at Bulger last summer at national showcase games, according to Callis.
“It’s not the best situation, but they can make do,” Callis said. “Everyone came into the spring with a prep list, maybe not fully formed. Again, it’s not optimal, but also it’s not like they’re just drafting blindly. If there was no baseball this summer, I think it would be more difficult to draft next year.”
Teams will have to rely on video of high school prospects from last summer because no games have been played this year. One of the biggest challenges is for players who might have pushed their way up draft boards with a stellar performance in 2020 is that there’s no opportunity to meet that goal with the game shut down.
In the end, no MLB team has an advantage over another in the current environment.
“The attitude of all the teams I talked to is that we’re all in the same boat,” Callis said. “It’s not like there are another six teams that have data the other teams don’t have. They’re just going to have to make do. … They’re not even close to flying blind.”
However, the smaller draft and extra year of eligibility for college players could create a logjam at some schools with incoming recruits also looking to make an impact.
In addition, there could be bigger challenges with the 2021 MLB Draft because teams might not be able to scout players this summer if there are no games. The 2021 draft also might shrink to just 20 rounds as opposed to the traditional 40.
As far as the Orioles in this year’s draft, they’ll likely have their eyes on four core players: Vanderbilt’s Austin Martin, Arizona State’s Spencer Torkelson, Georgia right-handed pitcher Emerson Hancock and Texas A&M left-handed pitcher Asa Lacy.
Martin could be the best pure hitter in the draft and can play multiple positions. Torkelson is the best power hitter and hit 25 home runs in 2018, breaking the program’s freshman record set by Barry Bonds. Hancock has a fastball that hits 99 mph and also throws an effective slider and changeup. Lacy, a left-hander, averaged 12.5 strikeouts per nine innings throughout his three years at A&M and has a fastball that hits the high 90s.
“To me, the pool might be those four guys,” Callis said.
Should the Orioles opt for a position player, the pick may well be Martin or Torkelson. Martin, who played mostly third base as a sophomore and mostly center field as a junior, was hitting .377/.507/.660 when the 2020 season was shut down. Torkelson was hitting .340/.598/.780 with six homers.
“Torkelson is a more devastating offensive player, but he might be first-base only. He might be able to play in the outfield,” Callis said. “Martin has more all-around tools but not the same talent that Torkelson has. It’s just a matter of what you want there. You can go either way. I think those are the top two guys any way you look at it.”
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Vanderbilt Athletics