With the Rule IV Draft roughly a month away, the Orioles are facing one of their most important decisions of the season: who to select with the fourth overall pick. The Orioles have a lot of recent experience picking high in the draft, with notable recent successes like Matt Wieters, Brian Matusz and Manny Machado, but also with notable failures such as Matt Hobgood. The importance of these draft picks is increased due to the Orioles continued lack of activity in international free agency, which we can expect to continue, despite what some scouts have described as one of the deepest classes of international talent ever becoming available this July.
Luckily for the Orioles, the Rule IV Draft in 2011 has been described as being one of the deepest ever, with many prospects who would be among the top picks in weaker years. It will be hard for the Orioles to avoid selecting a player with the fourth pick who doesn't have the potential to be an elite talent. Yet the 2011 draft is also filled with question marks. Unlike the previous two draft classes, this draft lacks any individual who has asserted themselves as the standout in the class, and at present, it is nearly impossible to say who will be off the board when the Orioles make their selection. The Orioles will need to be prepared for many different scenarios come draft day. With that in mind, let's take a look at the candidates.
Danny Hultzen, LHP, University of Virginia
Strangely enough, Hultzen is the player who is most certain to be off the board when the Orioles pick, probably going #3 overall to Arizona. Hultzen entered the season as a player ticketed for the late first round, a finesse lefty with good command and three solid pitches but with a ceiling of a #2/#3 starter. But strong performance combined with an uptick in velocity has made Hultzen a certainty for the top ten, and even a candidate for #1 overall, meaning the Orioles are very unlikely to get their hands on the only elite talent with local ties in the class.
Personally, though, I'm glad to say that the Orioles will probably not have the chance to take Hultzen. For college arms, I'm suspicious of junior year increases in velocity. And the uptick has only put Hultzen in the 92-94 mph range. As we've seen with Matusz, lefties with strong control and secondary pitches and low 90s stuff can thrive in the majors. But injury and age can rapidly take velocity away, and 92-94 doesn't leave enough breathing room for my tastes. Meanwhile, I worry that despite all of Hultzen's positives, he lacks a true out pitch. In this draft class, I want an ace, not another #2 starter.
Gerrit Cole, RHP, UCLA
Now, here is a college pitcher with ace written all over him. Cole entered the season as the clear #1 college arm, and as Anthony Rendon has spent most of the season at DH and hasn't shown tremendous power due to a combination of shoulder problems and the new NCAA bat, early on it looked like Cole would become the #1 overall pick. And he still might - Cole has a huge fastball that sits around 94 and tops out around 98, a plus slider, and a solid changeup. He has decent control of his stuff, a good repeatable delivery and a prototypical starter's body at 6'4" and 215 pounds. So why is there a possibility that Cole will still be around when the Orioles make their pick?
Because Cole continues to get less than elite results with his elite stuff. Cole presently has a record of 4-5 and an ERA of over 3.50 and has been hit pretty hard in his last three starts. The arsenal alone may well keep him above the Orioles' pick, or a string of successes over the next month could solidify his place as the top pitching prospect in the class. But if he continues to struggle to get results, his big price tag could allow him to slip to #4.
Anthony Rendon, 3B, Rice
Now this is a name that I know is familiar to Camden Chatters who endured the 2010 season! At the end of the 2010 baseball season, Rendon was widely considered to be the consensus #1 overall pick in this year's draft. A high school shortstop converted to third base in college, Rendon was elite defensively, had a great hit tool, plus power, and strong on base skills. He even managed to flash potential as a basestealer, and prior to an end of season ankle injury, there were thoughts that he might be moved back to short for his junior season.
Alas, this did not come to pass. The ankle injury healed in time for Rendon to begin the season, but talk of moving him to shortstop died. Meanwhile, a shoulder strain has kept Rendon from taking the field entirely for most of the season. Rendon also hasn't excelled with the bat in the same fashion as he did in his previous two seasons. In part, this is due to his being pitched around constantly, but certainly, his power has all but disappeared. This could be in part to the shoulder injury, and could also be credited to the new bat that has lowered power numbers throughout college baseball. But at 6'0" and 180 pounds, there had been some whispered questions about Rendon's power that have grown louder and louder. Like Cole, he probably won't be there when the Orioles pick. But there are enough questions about Rendon that like Cole, his price tag could drop him into our lap.
Bubba Starling, CF, Gardner-Egerton HS (KS)
Starling is a two-sport athlete similar in profile to 2009's third overall pick Donovan Tate - possessed of the most elite tools in the class, but raw due to a strong focus on football, where Starling already has a scholarship to quarterback for the University of Nebraska. But Starling has shown five-tool talent; he is a plus fielder at an elite defensive position, and garners raves about his makeup as well. He will be expensive to sign away from football, but the bonus rules for two-sport athletes will help allow whoever selects Starling to spread out his bonus over several years, cushioning the blow.
If Starling is around when the Royals select at #5 overall, they are widely expected to take the local product and his toolbox. But with high school baseball finally underway in Kansas, Starling's performance could easily deny the Royals the opportunity to add him to the top minor league system in baseball, possibly pushing Starling all the way to #1 overall. But if the current conventional wisdom is correct and Cole, Rendon, and Hultzen are the first three players off the board, Starling will be the top position player available to the Orioles from a talent perspective.
Dylan Bundy, RHP, Oswasso HS (OK)
Bundy, the top high school right hander in the class, is the younger sibling of Oriole prospect Bobby Bundy, who is having an excellent season in 2011. But Dylan could be even better. His fastball gets great movement and his plus velocity sits 94-96 already, and was clocked at 100 in a recent start. He has a hard plus slider as well as a solid curve, and has shown feel for a changeup. He also shows strong command and a good delivery, and has set himself apart from the other high school arms in the class.
The Hobgood pick may well have made the Orioles disinclined to select a high school arm with a top 5 pick, and with such a deep pool of college pitching, there have already been rumors that the Orioles favor selecting one of them. But the organization's ties to the Bundy family and Dylan's ace potential might well make his name the fourth one spoken on draft day.
Sonny Gray, RHP, Vanderbilt
In a class deep in college pitching, few are as divisive as Gray. Armed with a fastball that sits 94-96 and has often been clocked at 100, what has been called the best curve in college baseball and a solid change, no one can argue with his results. Scouts and coaches also love the makeup of the former high school quarterback. But similar to the ace of 2010's World Champions, what keeps doubts alive about Gray is his size. Keith Law has mentioned Gray as a dark horse to be selected first overall, but points out that Gray, generously listed at 5'11", would be the shortest pitcher taken first overall by several inches. And while many scouts think Gray could be a closer in the majors almost instantly, equally as many feel his eventual home will be the bullpen.
But with the era of Tim Lincecum in San Francisco leading to two Cy Youngs and a World Championship, many still feel that Gray's arsenal and durability to date have the makings of another ace starter, one whose path to the majors could be nearly as quick as The Freak's, and at a far cheaper price than prospects like Cole, Rendon or Starling. If Gray has the endurance to start in the majors, he could be the steal of the draft at #4 overall.
George Springer, OF, Conneticut
If anyone divides teams and scouts more than Gray in the top of this draft class, it is Springer. Springer, like Starling, is a five tool talent in the outfield, with plus power, plus speed, and a cannon arm. He's also shown a solid eye at the plate, setting a school record his sophomore year with 60 walks. But Springer has seen his stock fall somewhat this season due to a failure to cut down on his strikeouts. Obviously, all the tools in the world aren't enough if you can't put the bat on the ball.
A late season rebound from a slow start has Springer back in the conversation for the top ten picks in the draft, and a team who wants a package similar in talent to Starling but who either misses out on the prep prospect or who values the performance against more advanced competition that Springer has faced could call his name very early.
Jed Bradley, LHP, Georgia Tech
While Springer and Gray represent risks and upside, Bradley is the opposite - a model of consistency. With Bradley, teams know what they are going to get. Bradley's fastball sits in the 91-93 range, with a bit extra he can put on the ball when he has to. He holds that velocity late in games, and gets good natural sink on both his two seamer and four seamer. He compliments this with a plus slider that is effective against righties and lefties, and a changeup that gets good results in college ball but will need some work in the pros. He has solid but unspectacular command, putting him a notch below Hultzen as the top college lefty available. He has a good, repeatable delivery and a prototypical pitchers frame that could fill out and give him a touch more velocity. Bradley lacks the sort of dominant results that last year's top college lefty Drew Pomeranz had, but his more traditional delivery comforts scouts.
Bradley is, in other words, a solid collegiate left-handed starter, who should move quickly through the minors and has all the tools to be a successful #2/#3 starter in the majors, which has kept him solidly in the #5-#15 range in mock drafts for the past year. The Orioles have been linked to Bradley already, and have scouted him repeatedly. Unless he adds velocity or his changeup develops into a dominant pitch, however, his ceiling is limited. Bradley represents a very safe option for the Orioles in this draft. The question is whether in a draft class this deep, his upside is enough for the fourth overall pick.
Trevor Bauer, RHP, UCLA
And then there's this guy. Gerrit Cole's rotation mate and UCLA's #1 starter over Cole the past two seasons, Bauer also draws comparisons to Lincecum, with an unorthodox delivery and seemingly rubber arm. Bauer throws a two-seamer in the low 90s, a four-seamer that he runs up to 97, a curveball that competes with Gray for the best in college baseball, a highly unorthodox slider that moves almost like a screwball, and a changeup with sink and fade to righthanders. He can control all those pitches as well.
Bauer also has fantastic durability, but here is where the questions begin. On top of his unconventional delivery, Bauer has a well-documented distinct workout regimen, which some outlets have reported he feels so strongly about his agent has warned teams not to draft him if they want him to change. No one questions Bauer's work ethic, but some wonder if he is coachable. In addition to his heavy workouts, Bauer also has had his arm heavily taxed while at UCLA, regularly recording starts where he has thrown over 120 pitches. To date, Bauer has shown no ill effects from this workload; he remains one of the most dominant pitchers in college baseball. Still, doubts persist about the long-term potential of Bauer's arm under such heavy use and whether he can succeed in the majors with his present mechanics.
Unlike last year, where the Orioles had a pretty easy decision to make, the 2011 draft is filled with tough decisions. Most analysts, including John Sickels, believe that Rendon, Cole and Hultzen will be off the board when the Orioles pick. Sickels also believes that the Orioles will select Jed Bradley, which is the name most often associated with the O's to date, although the draft is still a month away and anything can happen.
I think taking Bradley, however, would be a mistake. Bradley is an excellent pitcher and should move through the minors quickly. But good teams are built around star players, and Bradley has perhaps the least star upside of all the candidates. I love Bubba Starling, who is widely considered to have the best tools in the class, and prep center fielders have an excellent track record of success in the first round. We have an urgent need for offense, and for a heir apparent to Adam Jones in center. And the pitching depth is much better than the offensive depth in this class; we should be able to get a nice pitching prospect in the second round.
But if the Orioles decide to pass on Starling and select a pitcher, I lean towards Gray, Bauer or Bundy. All three have more question marks than Bradley, but all have true ace upside, which Bradley lacks. With the fourth pick, I want more than a #2 starter.