This year's edition of the baseball draft is still a little over a week away. The draft gets started on Monday, June 8, when they'll go through the first 75 picks. Unlike last year, when they gave up their first two draft picks to sign Ubaldo Jimenez and Nelson Cruz, the O's will actually get to pick on the first night. They'll get to pick three times, in fact, with the first of them coming at #25 overall.
There's a big difference for the O's in picking lower in the first round now that they've been good for a few years. When the team picked in the top five for several years in a row, the question of who they'd pick was a much simpler one. For the most part it was: Which of the draft's top prospects will fall to the Orioles? That's how they ended up with Manny Machado, Dylan Bundy, and Kevin Gausman in consecutive years.
You are not going to be picking a player everyone knows will be a future star at #25 in the draft. If a player was a lock to be immediately one of the top prospects in the game, they'd get picked long before #25, although, as it turns out, one of the current best MLB players, Mike Trout, fell to #25 not too many years ago. Expecting that outcome would be crazy. If the O's can manage to grab a player who turns into a big league regular, even if not a star player, that would be a successful draft pick.
So who are they going to pick? Projecting one specific player is a fool's errand because, with 24 players being taken before the Orioles, there's no way to know for sure who will even be on the board. Safe to say that it won't be the draft's top prospect, Vanderbilt shortstop Dansby Swanson. A lot can change over the time between now and the draft, too, but looking at mock drafts is interesting to see what kind of player we might expect to see the Orioles grab.
In version 2.0 of his Mock Draft, ESPN's Keith Law sums up the Orioles' thinking: "I've heard they'd prefer a bat to an arm, and with Dylan Bundy and Hunter Harvey both having minor arm issues in the past few weeks, who can blame them?" The pick:
Ke'Bryan Hayes - 3B - Concordia Lutheran HS (Tombull, TX)
Hayes was one of two players that Law singled out as having interest to the O's in his last mock draft. He is the son of a former big leaguer, Charlie Hayes. ESPN's prospect capsule on Hayes says that he "still has work to do" defensively but they believe he'll stick at third base. As for his hitting:
He's not your prototypical power-hitting third baseman, but the hit tool could be plus in time, and there's certainly enough pop here to believe he can be a starter at the hot corner in the next three or four years.
You can get the sense that whoever they pick, there will be some development to be done. That's a bit of a terrifying idea to contemplate given the Orioles' recent track record. While Buck Showalter is fond of saying that you can't screw up the good ones, the O's manage to do it anyway.
By the way, if Hayes was to be drafted by the Orioles and turn into a starter at third in three years time, that would set him up to be the Orioles third baseman in 2019, which just so happens to be the first year that the Orioles would be without Manny Machado at that position, if he's not extended.
It won't work out that way because nothing ever does, but it's a nice dream.
Another mock draft comes from Fangraphs' Kiley McDaniel, whose articles are always worth reading. He makes the following pick for the O's:
Nate Kirby - LHP - University of Virginia
In Law's mock, Kirby is gone from the board at #23. McDaniel describes Kirby as "a local product and good value." What makes him good value is that he was seen as a top-10 pick before the year started, but he's missed two months with a lat strain. That's kept teams from getting looks at him and it has moved him down boards.
If the Orioles were going to get an unexpected value out of the #25 pick, grabbing a player whose stock fell due to injury would be a good way to do it, assuming the player got back into good health and performed better than their draft slot might anticipate.
Another mock draft, from Baseball America's John Manuel, actually has the Orioles taking Kirby with the #36 pick, the one they got for losing Cruz in free agency. At #25, he has the Orioles picking:
D.J. Stewart - OF - Florida State University
Both McDaniel and Manuel observe that the Orioles seem to be focused mostly on college talent. With their not picking until #90 last year, and drafting three high school players in their first three picks two years ago, it's been some time since they've had the opportunity to draft talent that might move through the system in a shorter amount of time. The current state of Orioles position player depth in the minor leagues is not pretty.
The ESPN bunch is not as high on Stewart, putting him as the #69 prospect in the draft class. They describe him like so:
The approach is outstanding; he rarely swings at pitches outside of the zone and consistently works pitchers into hitters' counts. His swing is built for line drives, and he shows the ability to spray them to both left and right field.
Which is exciting! But also:
Stewart does have good instincts and doesn't take poor routes in the outfield, and I've seen worse defensive players go in the first two rounds. The bad news is that his arm is well below average, and his lack of arm strength and below-average athleticism limit him to left field, and possibly even first base.
That's much less exciting. Again, that's what you get when you pick at the end of the first round, though. There are holes and question marks and flaws. The Orioles could turn any of these players into a big leaguer or a trade piece or they could end up being nothing at all. And the odds are that the O's won't pick any of them anyway - but they'll probably pick someone of roughly the same caliber.