In 2009, the highest Orioles' draft pick to go unsigned was 8th round pick Devin Harris, a sophomore-eligible corner outfielder from East Carolina. Harris was a first year starter as a sophomore, and showed plus power to go with a plus arm, but struggles with his routes to the ball and with pitch recognition. Harris performed well down the stretch, however, including a huge game in the NCAA regional, but his time at the Cape Cod League was cut short after six games due to a bacterial infection in his eye from a contact lens. While Harris and the Orioles were reportedly close on an overslot deal, negotiations fell apart and Harris returned to East Carolina for his junior year.
So far this season, Harris is batting .330/.425/.661. Aaron Fitt of Baseball America recently projected Harris to go in the first three rounds of this year's draft. I asked Andy Seiler about him, and while he wasn't as high on him as Fitt, he sees Harris as a 4th to 6th rounder.
In 2008, the top draft selection of the Orioles to go unsigned was Alvin CC C Chris Hermann, their tenth round pick. Hermann did not sign, transferred to Miami, and was taken in the sixth round of the 2009 draft by the Minnesota Twins, Hermann signed for $135,000 and splitting time between catching and the outfield put up an OPS of .851 with seven home runs in 60 games in the Appy League.
Harris and Hermann are examples of what I think should be a draft mantra: sign your picks, particularly in rounds 4 through 15 (picks in the first three rounds are protected, and a failure to sign a selection gives the team a compensation pick in the following year's draft, significantly reducing the downside). This is not a period in the draft where teams are selecting organizational players, if they are smart. Most of them will not be blue-chip prospects. But all have upside, and value to a smart organization.
Not every player who the Orioles draft but fail to sign ends up improving their stock. The Phillies released pitcher Eryk McConnell a couple weeks ago, the Orioles top unsigned pick from 2007 (10th round, 309th overall). McConnell, who was a year older than his class due to Tommy John surgery in 2004 went back to N.C. State for his senior season, was moved from the bullpen into the rotation, and struggled, and ended up going to Philadelphia in the 20th round in 2008. But McConnell did show promise at first, with a 22/2 K/BB ratio in 21 innings in the Sally League in 2008. Injuries limited McConnell to 30 1/3 innings in 2009, and his stuff was no longer getting strikeouts, so after looking at McConnell in Spring Training this season, the Phillies let him go.
But the virtue here is that these are almost risk-free investments for the Orioles. In most cases, like Hermann's, signing picks in the 4-15 range is a matter of tens of thousands of dollars. Even in a case like that of Harris who has improved his stock a bit more this year, Harris himself said the Orioles offer was "not far off" from what he was looking for.
In 2009, two teams failed to sign their fifth round picks, four failed to sign their sixth rounders, one failed to sign their seventh round pick, two eighth round picks went unsigned, one ninth rounder and five tenth rounders. Some of those unsigned picks, like Sam Dyson and Jabari Blash, are now on top 100 lists for the 2010 draft. But these numbers are shrinking relative to years past. The market for young baseball talent is becoming more and more rational. These opportunities will not last much longer.
The Orioles have proven that they have scouts who are consistently successful at recognizing talent whose stock is improving. All it takes is a small sum of money, probably about what we're paying Julio Lugo this season, to add a few more prospects to our organization. Sometime early this draft, someone is going to call Devin Harris' name. Let's hope that it is a reminder to Andy MacPhail: Sign your picks!