Baseball's first year player draft, which starts tonight, will always be important to the Orioles because it represents their best opportunity to add young talent to the system at a relatively low cost.
The choices that they make to attempt to improve the big league team in the short term do not always allow them to take full advantage of the draft. That will be the case again this year.
After going 81-81 last season, the O's were in position to draft at #14 overall, but they chose to give up that pick in order to sign Yovani Gallardo. It's safe to say that move hasn't worked out as hoped so far. As the draft arrives, Gallardo's only made four starts and they were, as a group, quite bad.
Along with giving up that pick, they also traded the #76 pick to the Braves in order to dump about $3 million of Brian Matusz's salary. Taken together, the O's not only lose a pick in the top half of the first round of the draft, but they also lose about $3.8 million worth of bonus pool money that they could use to draft and sign talent.
Instead, the Orioles won't get to pick until 27th overall tonight. If they find the right player they can still get someone useful with that pick. Their chances would be better if they could pick at #14, though.
Rather than running down the latest mock drafts for the O's top pick from the prospect-industrial complex, I'll be going through the players the Orioles will not get to pick as a result of the Gallardo signing. These are the players currently being thrown about as possibilities for the #14 pick, now held by the Indians:
Zack Collins - C - Miami
There is a lot of uncertainty about whether Collins will be able to be a catcher in the professional ranks. Pretty much everyone agrees that he doesn't have a strong arm. The differing assessments are regarding his mobility for receiving and blocking pitches.
What people like is his ability to hit, which MLB.com describes as "an advanced approach at the plate" from a guy who "isn't afraid to take walks" - Collins has drawn 69 walks against 48 strikeouts this college season - and there's some belief he can crank out 20+ home run seasons, enough that his bat could play at first base.
Even at 14th, you won't get a perfect player. If teams knew Collins could hit and was sure to stick at catcher, he'd go higher than this. Still, as far as the Orioles are concerned, their system would be better with him than not.
Other mock drafts don't even think Collins will last to the #14 pick. All three of Keith Law, Baseball America, and our fellow SB Nationers at Minor League Ball send him to the White Sox at #10.
Jason Groome - LHP - Barnegat HS (NJ)
Groome is the pick at #14 in Baseball America - surprising because he has been ranked among the top five prospects in the draft for most of the spring. Law and MLBall both have Groome going at #3 to the Braves, while MLB.com puts him at #6 to the Athletics.
So what's the problem? Players from the Northeast tend to make teams nervous because they don't have as much experience against tougher competition as do high schoolers from places where the weather lets them play baseball games, or at least more easily work on skills, year-round.
For one example of a New Jersey high schooler looking like a top talent and turning out to be a bust, there is the infamous Billy Rowell, picked 9th by the O's in 2006.
But Groome is a 6'6" lefty who has a curveball that ESPN's scouting report describes as "a natural wonder, a mid-70s hammer with terrific depth and finish." They are aware of the risk, though, with belief that Groome will "likely need around four or five years of development" - perhaps more of a chance than many teams would like to take at the top of the draft, and probably why BA thinks he could fall as far as #14.
Whether Groome falls that far down or not, it won't be the Orioles who benefit from taking him.
Blake Rutherford - OF - Chaminade College Prep HS (CA)
In Law's most recent mock draft, it's Rutherford who comes up at #14. Here, again, is another guy who's picked before this in other mocks, going to the Rays at #13 on both MLBall and MLB.com. Only BA has him lasting to #19.
Here is the appeal of this player whom the Orioles will definitely not get a chance to draft, from his MLB.com scouting capsule:
Rutherford has the chance to be an above-average hitter with above-average raw power. He'll record average to plus run times, and his speed helps him on the basepaths and in the outfield. Rutherford is a solid defender in the outfield, though most feel he'll move to right field in the future.
Sounds pretty good! The potential downside to Rutherford is that he is a whole year older than many of his fellow high school seniors, having already turned 19 whereas some such as Groome above have yet to even turn 18. That could have given him an edge when competing against his peers that he won't have in the professional ranks.
If Rutherford ends up being a problem, he'll be someone else's problem. And if he turns out to be really good, well, someone else is going to benefit.
Ian Anderson - RHP - Shenendehowa HS (NY)
Continuing the theme here is another player who doesn't even last to this draft spot in some other mock drafts. The MLBall mock draft picks Anderson here, while on MLB.com he is picked off at #12 and in Law's draft at #18. If the Orioles still had this pick, they would have their pick of players who will be coveted by many teams.
BA, who rates him as its 12th best prospect, has the Vanderbilt commit sliding to the second round due to bonus demands.
Anderson is another guy from the Northeast who teams couldn't see because of various weather problems. Law notes that Anderson lost multiple starts due to rain and snow, then suffered an oblique injury, and battled pneumonia. So he only started two regular season games.
The potential is clear. From the ESPN scouting report on Anderson:
Anderson is one of those complete-package prep arms that checks all the boxes on an area scout's notepad. He's a projectable 6-foot-3, loose and smooth with great curveball feel and present big league velocity. Anderson has been up to 95 regularly this spring ... sits 91-95 with a little bit of run. He commands the fastball to both sides of the plate and has garnered plus command projection from some observers.
Again, that sounds pretty good for a player to add to the system. But when you sign the Gallardos of the world, you won't get a chance to draft these players, either because someone else will pick them first or because you won't have the pool money to pay them what they're asking.
With Gallardo, what's done is done, but hopefully it can serve as a lesson to the Orioles to be more careful about these signings. It can be worth giving up a pick to sign the right player - like Nelson Cruz in 2014 - but give up a pick for the wrong player and you're stuck with a bad deal plus a weaker farm system. And stop trading draft picks!