The Orioles have a very bad farm system, just about everyone whose paycheck does not in some way come from the Orioles agrees. The latest exhibit of this is that the O's farm ranks just 27th out of 30 MLB teams, according to ESPN's Keith Law. They've dipped even farther below the already-poor ranking of 22nd they had last season. There is little help on the way.
It's fitting that this deserved dragging of the O's farm hits the streets on the same day that the Orioles are reportedly "making progress" towards signing free agent starting pitcher Yovani Gallardo. That signing, if it takes place, would cost the Orioles their top draft pick, the #14 overall selection in the June draft.
Worse still for the O's is that three of their four division rivals are all ranked in the top half of farm systems. The Red Sox rate 10th, the Yankees 13th, and the Rays 14th. All three of these teams have four prospects on Law's top 100 list, where the O's have only two. Law breaks the O's problem down into two brutal sentences:
Hunter Harvey has been out for a year and a half, Dylan Bundy can't stay healthy and may be done as a starter, and their best prospect is a catcher who might be a singles hitter. Their upside was almost entirely in short-season last summer, but they wouldn't be in this situation if the last wave of arms had panned out.
The reference to a singles-hitting catcher is about Chance Sisco. It seems he's less a believer than some in the Orioles organization. His comment about upside probably refers to prospects like Ryan Mountcastle and Tanner Scott, both of whom are a long way away from helping, if they actually hit their upside.
One way to view this news is to cling even harder to the #14 draft pick, thinking the O's absolutely need it to help the farm system. I remain unenthused by the idea of giving up the pick for Gallardo. That said, no one should be acting like the #14 pick is going to be the instant panacea to get the O's system going again.
There are success stories, both with that exact pick and within the range of picks starting at #14. That can't be denied. Two of the last three #14 overall picks are currently on the back end of MLB.com's top 100 list. That's Atlanta's Kolby Allard (#89) and Pittsburgh's Reese McGuire (#98).
Jose Fernandez, who rates among the best pitchers in baseball, was drafted in that spot in 2011. Go back to 2007 and the Braves picked Jason Heyward, who just earned himself a $184 million contract. Those are big hits at #14.
You can also look at the range of picks beginning at #14 and find success stories in recent drafts. In the 2012 draft, the Reds used the #14 pick on a pitcher named Nick Travieso, who's yet to crack High-A. But they might have picked Corey Seager instead, who's now the #1 prospect in all of baseball. Or they might have picked Nationals pitching prospect Lucas Giolito, the #3 prospect, and top pitching prospect, in baseball.
Yet these are cherry-picked success stories. Most picks at this point do not turn into difference makers. Many are much less exciting than that. Some are outright busts. Even for teams who know what they're doing - and the O's haven't exactly shown this with their recent draft hauls - the draft is a complicated affair, full of risk and uncertainty.
Not all #14 draft picks are equal to one another
Ten drafts ago, the #14 pick was recent Oriole Travis Snider. He once ranked as high as the #5 prospect in baseball according to Baseball Prospectus. Surefire star, can't miss, right? In eight years of MLB action, he has posted a total of 4.7 bWAR. He had to sign a minor league contract this offseason.
If you knew the Orioles would draft the next Snider, would you still want them to keep the pick at all costs? Of course not. Nor would you care for any of the six players drafted after Snider, all of whom have at least made the big leagues, but the most successful of these, by bWAR, is Jeremy Jeffress, who, when he was still a prospect, was suspended for 100 games because he tested positive for marijuana three times.
Jeffress was a 7th-8th inning guy for the Brewers last year. It was only last year, nine years after he was drafted, that Jeffress finally had a season where he pitched more than 32 innings at the big league level.
After these worthies, the next pick was Ian Kennedy. He is the only player drafted from about 12th-48th in that draft who's ever had any kind of sustained big league success. Pick #11 was Max Scherzer. Pick #49 was Chris Tillman.
Kennedy's not that great. Nobody can believe the Royals just gave him $70 million. He is a good outcome for a mid-to-late first round pick. If you knew the 2019-25 Orioles would have Kennedy in their rotation, would you want them to give up the pick to get Gallardo for three years? That's a tougher question - but the Orioles would have to demonstrate skill and luck in making draft picks that they just haven't shown in a long time in order to get the next Kennedy.
It's not a very good argument to say, "The Orioles suck at making draft picks, so the Orioles should just give up their draft picks." Even if that's true, they can't make decisions thinking like that or they'll never improve.
A weak farm costs them in a lot of ways. Imagine if they'd had better prospects to trade for an outfielder last July - they might have gotten Yoenis Cespedes instead of Gerardo Parra. Imagine if they'd had an outfield prospect close to the big leagues last winter. Then they could have just had that prospect stick in MLB without cycling through failures, two of whom - Snider and Parra - cost the O's three pitching prospects combined to get in trades.
In essence, the fact that their farm system sucked led to a series of decisions that have made it an even more bare cupboard. They wouldn't be riding high in the top 10 if they still had Steven Brault, Stephen Tarpley, or Zach Davies, but they might at least be out of the bottom third of teams. And if they still had Davies, they might feel less compelled to need to sign Gallardo, instead spending that money on, I don't know, a real outfielder.
Making a good selection with the #14 pick would be one way to help with those problems, to be sure. But to really build up the farm system again, they'll need to hit on developing players from farther down in the draft. They need to engage meaningfully in the Latin American amateur market. Either that or they can start to stink again, so they're picking high in the draft again... and even then your ultra-high draft picks can vary from Matt Wieters to Matt Hobgood, from Manny Machado to Brian Matusz.
Sure things are few enough even when you are looking at the top five of the draft. They're even fewer when you get down into the mid-first round picks.
There isn't one answer to save the Orioles farm system. It's in dire straits. There's no doubt the #14 pick would give them an opportunity to improve it, and if they give up that opportunity they'll lose some potential. But the #14 pick is not going to save the Orioles farm system on its own, either. To bring it out of the depths they'll need to do a lot of other things right, and they still can and must do those things whether or not they give up the #14 pick.
So, no, the Orioles probably shouldn't sign Gallardo for all the other reasons that's looking like a bad signing. If they deem it best to sign Gallardo, it's not the end of the world, even for a weak O's farm system.