A common theme of the Orioles drafts since they have started competing again is that they have to make do with the best of the rest, rather than having a chance to drool over the top talents of the class. The 2015 draft was no exception, as the Orioles, by virtue of winning the AL East in 2014, did not pick until #25 overall in that draft.
Not too long ago, Mike Trout, who’s been the best player in MLB for five years running, was drafted at #25 overall, but the fact is the Angels were very lucky to have him fall to them. Most years, a team just has to make do with a player with much, much less promise than Trout.
Although the Orioles didn’t have a high pick in the first round, they would at least have the opportunity to select two late-first round-caliber players, thanks to a compensation pick awarded when Nelson Cruz signed with the Mariners. The O’s gave up a second round pick to sign Cruz and got a pick about 20 draft spots higher the next year after he left. Plus, you know, he hit 40 dingers. That was a good signing.
By the time the 2015 draft rolled around, certain organizational weaknesses were readily apparent, particularly in corner outfield spots and in the starting rotation. A farm that had graduated its best players in recent years had not been restocked yet, with the lost draft of 2014 providing no opportunity to do so.
How did they tackle the challenge of replenishing the farm in the 2015 draft? Let’s take a look and see how it’s been working out.
1st round, 25th overall - DJ Stewart - OF - Florida State
The industry insiders who do mock drafts each year had a general sense that the Orioles would be looking for a college bat, and sure enough, that’s what they came up with. Whether there is wisdom in looking for a need rather than best player available is up for debate.
Still, they didn’t reach to pick Stewart where they did. He was, at the time, rated as the #30 draft prospect on Baseball America’s 500 - and was generally about that high on other boards as well. That’s important to keep in mind when considering Stewart’s later rocky road. This wasn’t some out-of-nowhere reach pick.
The thing about Stewart is that he was known to have an extremely funky crouch, which had worked for him in college and left evaluators skeptical of whether it would work in the pros. A .218/.288/.345 batting line for short-season Aberdeen after being drafted seemed to settle that.
If you go watch Stewart for Double-A Bowie this season, where he has a .258/.346/.471 batting line through 41 games, the crouch is far less pronounced. Somehow, Stewart has posted better numbers at each successive level of the minor leagues. Bowie is his best stop yet, where he has unlocked some power, hitting seven home runs so far.
Prospect lists, like MLB.com’s top 30 Orioles list, have been harsh on Stewart due to his earlier struggles. Indeed, on that list, Stewart at #22 is below three relievers, two guys who are recovering from Tommy John surgery, one guy the Orioles designated for assignment this year, and one guy I had never heard of before this list.
Where’s he going? That’s the big question, of course. He is, at least for the moment, heading in the right direction to get to MLB. Camden Chat’s Joe Wedra talked to Stewart this week - check it out if you’d like to hear more from him.
Another big question is: Could the Orioles have scouted and picked someone better, based on who was available? The Tigers selected Christin Stewart, another college outfielder, at #34 overall. Their Stewart has gone on to continuous minor league success including a .986 OPS and 13 home runs for Double-A Erie so far this year.
1st round, 36th overall (comp.) - Ryan Mountcastle - SS - Paul J. Hagerty HS (FL)
A team’s top draft pick typically gets a little big league treatment right after signing. Mountcastle ended up signing before Stewart and he got this experience in 2015, and by virtue of more steady success and growth in the O’s minors, has enjoyed more hype since being drafted.
When you look at what he’s doing so far for High-A Frederick this year, where, at age 20, he’s batting .328/.359/.561 through 40 games, it’s no surprise. Frederick is a long way from the big leagues, but still, better to see a guy succeeding at the lower levels than not - at least at the plate. Mountcastle’s future at shortstop is uncertain, with only the Orioles seeming to still stubbornly believe he can stick there.
Some praise for Mountcastle from his MLB.com scouting profile:
Mountcastle is a pure right-handed hitter. His loose swing can get too one-dimensional at times, leading to some swing-and-miss, but he does a good job of adjusting his hands and barrel so as to make consistent contact, all the while demonstrating feel for using the whole field. His bat speed is plus and leads to a lot of hard contact, leading scouts to believe his above-average raw power will translate in games. He's a good athlete with average speed that aids him on both sides of the ball.
Indeed, Mountcastle doesn’t walk very much, so the plate discipline could prove to be a problem. Still, so far this season, he’s struck out only 16.6% of the time, which would actually be the lowest rate among any Oriole with 50+ plate appearances.
This looked like a reach pick at the time. Mountcastle rated 122nd on Baseball America’s 500, 108th on a Fangraphs list before the draft, and didn’t appear at all on a Baseball Prospectus top 125. Not the guy you’d expect to go at #36. So far at least, it seems like the O’s may have had a good instinct on this one.
2nd round, 68th overall - Jonathan Hughes - RHP - Flowery Branch HS (GA) - did not sign
“The Orioles will have four of the first 74 picks!” was a thing you heard before the 2015 season... then they flushed away the 74th pick by dumping about $2.5 million of Ryan Webb salary onto the Dodgers, and they didn’t sign their second round pick, either. So they really just got two of the first 36 picks.
I don’t know why they didn’t sign Hughes. Strange things happen in negotiations. I don’t know why the Orioles drafted him, either, considering that he rated as low as 255th on the BA500.
Hughes ended up going to Georgia Tech instead, where it appears he has some command problems this year, with 20 walks, eight hit batsmen, and six wild pitches in 25.1 innings. An Orioles pitcher in spirit, truly. Best of luck to him for improving.
The Orioles received the #69 pick in the 2016 draft due to not signing Hughes. You can find out about that tomorrow.
Shortly after the draft, scouting director Gary Rajsich proclaimed that lefty reliever Garrett Cleavinger (third round) could be the fastest-moving pick of the bunch. Cleavinger, a college closer, is one of the many Orioles pitchers in the minors to be walking too many dudes, with 12 walks in 18.1 innings and an unsightly 5.79 ERA for Double-A Bowie - though he’s struck out 23 batters, so at least he has that going for him.
Cedric Mullins (13th round) seemed to be the darling of spring training, showing up in the late innings of many games and doing good things. That carried over to the regular season for the center fielder, where, as a 22-year-old in Bowie, he was batting .367/.406/.683 through 14 games. A hamstring injury has had him sidelined for nearly a month. We’ll see what he’s doing once he gets back.
Maryland’s own Ryan Meisinger (11th round) is performing respectably in Bowie’s bullpen. One thing the O’s system has been good at doing is mining bullpen arms, so maybe he can join that group.
Jason Heinrich (seventh round) was already used as trade bait to get a month of Michael Bourn last season, whatever that was worth. If the O’s are lucky, in another year some of the high schoolers they took, like Ryan McKenna (fourth round) have developed into prospects worth keeping an eye on. For the moment, this isn’t looking like a 2013 draft that could end up with several late-round hits.