In two weeks, the draft will be underway, and the mystery of who will be the next top pick of the Orioles will be solved. This pick ought to be a pretty big deal in the history of this organization. It is the highest pick the Orioles have had since they selected Ben McDonald first overall in the 1989 draft.
The following year, the Orioles selected Mike Mussina 20th overall. But in the 19 drafts since then, the Orioles have been mostly a story of ineptitude in the draft. Our first round picks since Mussina were Mark Smith, Jeffrey Hammonds, Jay Powell, Alvie Shepherd, Jayson Werth, Darnell McDonald, Rick Elder, Keith Reed, Richard Stahl, Mike Paradis, Larry Bigbie, Beau Hale, Mike Fontenot, Chris Smith, Adam Loewen, Nick Markakis, Wade Townsend, Brandon Snyder, Bill Rowell, Matt Wieters, Brian Matusz, and Matt Hobgood.
Many of us, including me, hope that recent draftees such as Wieters and Matusz will end this streak of futility in producing stars from our draft picks. But if they and the rest of the Orioles' draftees continue to fail to reach their potential, our years of futility are almost certain to continue. For all the daily fury that our poor free agent signings and questionable managerial decisions inspire, nothing has contributed more to our losing record this season than our lack of impact talent throughout our roster.
At present, the consensus of most evaluators and reporters believe that the Orioles will select prep righthander Jameson Taillon with the third pick, with the Orioles also looking hard at prep shortstop Manny Machado. Machado and Taillon are both also being considered by the Pirates, and the Orioles will likely select whichever player the Pirates choose not to take. Taillon is the consensus top prep arm, and Machado the consensus top prep bat, and so for those who believe in taking the top talent available, either should be pleasing.
There remains, however, a chance the Orioles go another direction. The Orioles could consider third baseman Zack Cox of the University of Arkansas. Cox, a draft-eligible sophomore who bats lefty, is an athletic player at the hot corner with 11 steals in 12 attempts for the Razorbacks. Cox showed major power potential as a freshman, hitting 13 home runs and was named as a Louisville Slugger freshman All-American. He went on to show his potential with wood bats in the Cape Cod League, batting .344 and was named MVP of the Cape Cod All-Star game. This season, Cox has seen his power numbers fall (only 8 home runs so far) but has transformed himself into an on-base machine, batting .432 and walking 33 times while only striking out 29 times. Cox's tools, performance, and polish make him one of the top college bats available in the class, along with catcher Yasmani Grandal, shortstop Christian Colon, and outfielder Michael Choice. Of those four, only Cox and Colon are likely to be strongly considered by the Orioles.
Another college player the Orioles are rumored to be considering is North Carolina right-hander Matt Harvey. Harvey, who has nearly ideal pro size at 6'4" and 225 pounds, was Baseball America's #1 high school prospect for the 2007 draft, but was considered a difficult sign and went to the Tar Heels despite being selected in the third round by the Angels. Harvey was a freshman All-American for North Carolina, but had a very poor sophomore season that saw his stock drop considerably. However, Harvey's stock has risen off of a strong junior campaign, and he is now back solidly in the first round mix. Harvey's calling card is his fastball, which tops out at 97 and has shown that he can maintain his velocity deep into starts. He also has a slider he has recently developed with plus potential, a curve that was a plus pitch for him in high school but which he seldom throws now, and a rarely used changeup. There are indications, however, that Harvey's arm has been somewhat abused with the Tar Heels, having thrown over 120 pitchers in a single start five times this season, including a whopping 156 pitches against Clemson. Harvey's name has recently been attached to the Orioles in rumors, following reports that GM Andy MacPhail had concerns about selecting another high school player after Hobgood last season.
Due to recent slippage in performance, Drew Pomeranz and Karsten Whitson are unlikely to be selected third overall, leaving (in my opinion) six serious candidates for the Orioles' pick: Taillon, Machado, Cox, Colon, Harvey, and prep righthander Dylan Covey. Taillon and Machado are the highest upside picks, but come with major risk factors. Prep players are boom or bust candidates, and with Taillon expected to command a record bonus and Machado a Boras client, both will severely limit the ability of the Orioles to spend in later rounds unless the draft budget is significantly changed from recent years. Cox and Colon would both represent less upside than the prep twosome, but would demand less money and provide more certainty. Harvey would represent a big comeback for the former top prep after many people no longer considered him a first rounder due to his poor sophomore season with a tremendous amount of risk for a college hurler. Covey would be a wild card, a pick reminiscent of the Hobgood selection with the Orioles bucking the conventional wisdom to select a player who is a consensus mid-first rounder with a top five pick.
Whoever the Orioles select, the expectations will be high. With our highest pick in twenty years and our long streak of futility both in the draft and in the majors, how could they not be?