Going into the 2011 Rule IV draft, the Orioles had several important goals. The first was to add star-caliber talent to a team starved for it both at the major league level and in the minors. The second was to repair a minor league system that has fallen behind most of the other teams in the majors. The third was to keep pace with their AL East competition - a difficult task considering that three of the four clubs in the division were armed with a multitude of compensation picks, allowing them to select a wider variety of the top amateur talents in the country.
The O's had only one major advantage in this: they possessed the fourth overall pick, and would pick fourth in every subsequent round. Let's take a look at how they used their picks to achieve their goals.
I generally divide the draft into three sections: rounds 1-5, rounds 6-12, and the remainder of the draft. The top five rounds should provide you with quality players who qualify as prospects immediately. Rounds 6-12 should all have potential to be quality prospects and at least one tool that projects as plus for the majors. After round 12, however, the only legitimate prospects are significant signability risks requiring significantly overslot deals; the rest are organizational players. We will begin with the first five rounds.1st Round (4th overall): Dylan Bundy, RHP, Oklahoma HS - Well, the O's needed to add a star-caliber talent, and despite last minute rumors that they might go another direction, they went with the expected player in Bundy. Bundy fits the description of star-caliber to a T; he has elite velocity, a strong four pitch mix, and is extremely advanced for a prep pitcher. He also rates highly on intangibles, a notorious workout warrior who ranks second in the class only to Trevor Bauer in terms of his work ethic and approach to the game. With the fourth pick, the Orioles managed to draft the pitcher who ranked highest on most draft boards, and ranked second to only Rice's Anthony Rendon in terms of upside according to the majority of evaluators. Bundy's only real drawback is a lack of prototypical size and projectibility, but with a high 90s fastball already, projection is pretty much moot. And while signability is a factor, all the elite talents are bound to be very expensive, and Bundy's stated desire to play with his brother Bobby and his familiarity with the organization are advantages for the team.
The only real question about this pick exists because Rendon remained on the board when the O's picked. Those of us who are obsessed with the draft will likely link Bundy's career to Rendon's for years, in a similar fashion to how Brian Matusz and Justin Smoak are linked in the minds of some O's fans. Generally speaking, I believe that one should favor position players over pitchers in the draft, and my own board reflected this: I ranked only Rendon above Bundy. But I also think that it was awfully close between the two, that one should take the player who wants to play for your team, and that one should take the player who is healthy above the one whose health is in question. The O's achieved everything they needed to with this pick, and got one of the draft's top two talents with the fourth pick. Huge win.
2nd Round (64th overall): Jason Esposito, 3b, Vanderbilt - After selecting a pitcher in the first round, I was certain that Joe Jordan would select a hitter in the second. What I didn't expect was Esposito; Jordan strongly favors athletes, and Esposito isn't a great athlete. A below average runner whose thick lower body forced a move from short to third, Esposito's calling card is his power, another tool that Jordan has rarely gone for in the top of the draft. But Esposito is still an excellent pick in this spot and fills a strong need in the O's system. He has good hands and a plus arm, and should have no trouble sticking at third and being an above average defender there, despite lacking great range. He has sufficient power to hit 20+ home runs in the bigs, and could add more, and should be a solid hitter as well. He doesn't have great plate discipline (a skill that Jordan tends to undervalue in his draftees) but while he doesn't walk a ton, he also doesn't strike out much, with a 35/34 K/BB ratio as a sophomore. And while he didn't set the world on fire with wood bats at the Cape, he was respectable and showed that his talents aren't a mirage of metal bats.
Esposito still struggles somewhat with his swing mechanics, which is what held him back from being a first round candidate. But if the Orioles can clean up his swing, he projects to be a plus third baseman who at his peak could make a few All Star games, although his lack of plus plate discipline will likely hold him back from ever being elite. Still, the Orioles got good value here, picking up a supplemental round talent in the second round, and filled a strong organizational need as well. Esposito also compares favorably for the O's to the other hitters selected in the second round, largely raw and toolsy prep outfielders like Granden Goetzman, Charlie Tilson, and Williams Jerez. Most of the top catching prospects were also selected in this round, but Esposito is a much better fit for our system needs. Esposito is a Scott Boras client, so he will be expensive and won't sign quickly, but will almost certainly sign as a college junior in this draft position. Look for him late in the season at Aberdeen, where he will begin his competition with Jonathan Schoop to be the O's third baseman of the future.
3rd Round (94th overall): Mike Wright, RHP, East Carolina - Wright is a big presence on the mound at 6'5" and has a big fastball to match. Sitting in the mid 90s and topping out at 97 with good movement, it is a plus pitch, and he has the frame to add bulk and velocity in the future as well. But it is the only pitch Wright has that is even average, which prevented him from being a starter at ECU until this past season. With improvement to his secondary pitches, Wright could be a mid-rotation starter, but most evaluators have him pegged for the back end of a bullpen, which is far more likely to be his home, and considering the O's player development history, he could end up there sooner rather than later.
Wright has upside, but is much more of a value pick than an upside pick. Wright is in some ways the opposite of last year's third rounder Dan Klein; Klein has a starters arsenal but durability issues that have kept him in the pen, while Wright has a reliever's arsenal but has the durability to start. He should sign quickly and move quickly if used in the pen. As for the wisdom of his selection in this spot, I am torn. He lacks the question marks that surround the other top pitchers selected in the round, such as Bryan Brickhouse, Matt Purke and John Stilson, but he cannot match their upside. A good argument can be made for taking a higher upside player who may not be signable in this round, as it is the last round where picks are protected. At the same time, Wright has a much higher probability of being a useful Major Leaguer than any of those three, and the Orioles under Jordan have not shown a tendency to take high upside players in the third, so it wasn't to be expected. Ultimately, I favor several of the bats selected in this round - Conner Barron, B.A. Vollmuth, Aaron Westlake, Ricky Oropesa and Johnny Eierman - above Wright; several of those names I felt were second round talents, and Barron and Eierman in particular fit the mold of a Jordan draftee. But Wright still is a quality prospect and a solid addition to the O's system.
4th Round (125th Overall): RHP Kyle Simon, University of Arizona - Simon was the second consecutive 6'5" right hander selected by the Orioles, and like Wright, he profiles best in a major league bullpen. Simon throws from a low 3/4 arm slot, nearly a sidearm. This means that he lacks the velocity that someone of his size might have, throwing only in the low 90s. But it also means that he gets plus movement on his pitches and lots of ground balls. Simon is mostly a fastball/slider pitcher, and with work his slider projects as a plus pitch. But his delivery and average changeup make it hard to project him as more than a back end starter or seventh inning reliever.
The fourth round saw some of college baseball's top closers go off the board, notably Tony Zych and Noe Ramirez. Both are higher upside arms than Simon with equal probability, but Simon has more of a chance to start than either. Had the Orioles gone in a different direction in the third round, I would have favored them, Zych in particular, over Simon (and to some degree do anyway). But Simon does represent value in his draft position, and if you have more faith than I do about his ability to start given his arm slot, he represents good value.
5th Round (155th Overall): LHP Matt Taylor, Middle Georgia CC - Taylor, a projectible junior college arm who was scheduled to play for the Georgia Bulldogs next season has already signed, which is a bit of a surprise considering he was expected to command over slot money in this position. At 6'1" and 185 pounds, he has some projection, but not a ton, and his 90-92 mph fastball probably won't see significant improvement. But as a lefty, he doesn't need tons of velocity, and both his four and two seam fastballs have strong sink. His curve flashes plus, but his command and changeup are raw even for a JuCo player, and he will not speed through the minors, particularly since he projects better as a starter than in the pen.
Taylor represented good value and upside for the fifth round when he was thought to be a tough sign, and now that the O's have inked him for around slot, the pick looks even better. There were some interesting hitters taken in the fifth, such as Matt Skole and Ryan Wright, but I like the selection of Taylor here, and think that the O's did a very good job scouting him and gauging his demands.
Review of Rounds 1-5 - The first five selections by the O's in the 2011 draft represent an excellent addition to the O's system. Obtaining a prospect of Bundy's caliber with the fourth pick is a coup, and easily fulfills the first of the Orioles' draft goals: to add star potential to their minor leagues. Bundy is a sure top 100 prospect next season and probably top 50 even if he doesn't throw a pro pitch this season, and has the potential to be one of baseball's most dominant pitchers. Esposito also has the potential to become a top prospect and shouldn't have been available at his draft position. It isn't hard to imagine a future where Esposito partners with Machado on the left side of the infield of an Orioles playoff contender. Both players fit our needs and were either the best player available or close to it.
The group of Wright, Simon and Taylor is less impressive, but not disappointing either. Each of the three has present value while also having at least some upside, and all three should be easily signable (particularly since Taylor already turned out to be). Their probability is pretty good, particularly for their draft position, and this goes a long way towards achieving the second goal of the Orioles' draft: they help repair our depleted minor league system. All three should be expected to play full season ball in 2012, meaning we should see fewer appearances by probable minor league lifers in Delmarva and Frederick than we are seeing at present.
What the Orioles didn't manage to achieve in the first five rounds was much parity with the classes of the Red Sox, Rays, and Jays. These teams managed to stock their already stronger minor league systems with numerous picks, and the O's were almost bound to struggle to keep pace. While Bundy is a much better prospect than anyone selected by those teams, all three managed to draft prospects with very high upside who fell for various reasons due to their high number of picks. The Red Sox drafted prospects with mid first round talent in Matt Barnes, Blake Swihart, and Jackie Bradley Jr.; the Rays landed Taylor Guerreri, who was the third best prep righty after Bundy and Archie Bradley, along with Mikie Mahtook who might have been a top ten pick in most drafts; the Blue Jays drafted signable players with their first few picks after Tyler Beede, but then grabbed Kevin Comer, Daniel Norris and John Stilson, who if signed will give the Jays four legitimate first round arms on talent, including the top prep lefty. Bundy's talent alone cannot make up the gap between their classes and ours. The O's could have narrowed this gap some by attaining better balance between value and upside, with their best opportunity to do so in the third round.
But by grabbing quality signable talent in rounds 3-5, the Orioles may have left themselves with the funds to go after more expensive players later in the draft, while getting good value from their more easily signable selections. This has been Jordan's MO in the past, although he has too often let some of those players slip through his fingers even when selected. By taking signable talent, he has also made sure that the Orioles get good value while having the funds to meet Bundy's exorbitant demands. With the continuing attendance problems of the O's, the fact that the O's are in violation of the league's debt service rules, and the increase in the payroll of the major league club, it was not a foregone conclusion that the O's would even select Bundy, nor is it certain that they can afford to once again be among the draft's top spenders, as much as they might need to be. The Tigers, who have historically spent big money on the draft, are an example of a team whose spending was radically cut back this season without much warning to the fans, but the Bundy selection ensured that the same would not be true in Baltimore.