Three years ago, the Orioles headed into draft season on the heels of a 2014 division title. The 2015 season was already clearly lacking the je ne sais quoi of the 2014 team. Thanks to their previous success, the top of the draft impact talent was not going to be available to them. The Orioles did not select in this draft until 25th overall.
Working in the Orioles favor was a couple of things that would result in their receiving extra chances to add talent to their system. The excellent 2014 performance of Nelson Cruz coupled with his declining a qualifying offer and departing as a free agent netted a compensation pick at the end of the first round. The O’s were also in line to receive a competitive balance pick after the second round, meaning they would have four of the first 74 picks in the draft.
Things didn’t work out quite like that. The Orioles cheaply traded away that competitive balance pick, dumping about $2.5 million of Ryan Webb’s salary on the Dodgers in the process. The O’s also did not end up signing their second round pick, Jonathan Hughes, so “four of the top 74 picks” turned into “two of the top 36 picks.” Not bad, but not as impressive as it might have been.
With the picks that they actually made and signed, the Orioles went heavy on position players with most of their first ten rounds. Taken in combination with the lack of a pick until the third round in 2014, it’s no surprise there’s no fresh pitching talent in the high minors or majors by now. That’s the bad news. The good news is that some of those position player prospects could be in position to help the Orioles very soon.
First pick - #25 overall - OF DJ Stewart - Florida State University
Stewart was a good hitter in college who had big question marks as a pro because of a funky batting stance with a strong crouch. ESPN’s Keith Law summed up Stewart as a future DH with a bad body. Still, he was generally seen as a late first round talent and that’s where the O’s took him.
The immediate introduction to the pros went poorly. At short-season Aberdeen after being drafted, Stewart batted just .218/.288/.345 in 62 games. Indeed, the crouch did not work as a pro. Within a short period of time, this looked like a bungled pick. However, to his credit, Stewart worked on his batting stance and he improved at every level over the next couple of years, raking 21 homers while posting a .378 OBP for Double-A Bowie last season. He even stole 20 bases.
Through 41 games with Triple-A Norfolk this season, Stewart is holding a .271/.363/.451 batting line. Even when he was scuffling a bit in the lower minors and hadn’t quite unlocked any power yet, he still had solid on-base skills. Now the power is better and he’s still walking a good bit. If the Orioles poor roster construction wasn’t a factor, Stewart might already be the left fielder.
When Stewart was performing poorly, the “Who might they have taken instead?” question lingered more than it does now. Mike Soroka, picked 28th by the Braves, is the #27 prospect in MLB and has already made several starts at age 20. At 34, the Tigers took Tennessee outfielder Christin Stewart, who hit 28 dingers in Double-A last year and already has 12 in Triple-A this year.
Second pick - #36 overall - SS Ryan Mountcastle - Paul J. Hagerty (FL) HS
This was a weird pick at #36 because Mountcastle was generally rated in the 100-125 range by the publications like Fangraphs and Baseball America. When the Orioles are out on a limb with the draft, you can’t help but be nervous.
The book on Mountcastle is that people were pretty sure that he would be able to hit and nobody was quite sure where he would be able to play. The Orioles tried to make him stick at shortstop. That didn’t work out. He’s now playing third base in Double-A, and it’s also unclear if that will work out. Some people just aren’t cut out for the left side of the infield. Can they bounce him to the outfield? See above about the poor roster construction limiting options.
But let’s not get hung up on that. Mountcastle raked his way up to Bowie at age 20. That was enough to get him on the top 100 prospect lists before the season, as high as #65 with Baseball Prospectus. Though an injury cost him time at the beginning of the season, he’s back now and batting .294/.342/.471 through 18 games. It’s a small sample size, but it’s noteworthy for an increased walk rate - something he was apparently lectured about at the end of spring training by Buck Showalter.
In the “still available at this slot” game, the Braves took #75 prospect Austin Riley at 41 and the Indians took current #22 prospect Tristan McKenzie at 42. At 48, the Phillies grabbed #35 prospect Scott Kingery, who famously signed a contract extension before ever getting called up to the big leagues. He has scuffled early in his career, with a .613 OPS to date, but it’s only been 47 games.
As mentioned before, the Orioles did not sign Jonathan Hughes (second round). This was also a weird pick, as he rated 255th on Baseball America’s pre-draft list. Then the Orioles didn’t even sign him! I don’t know why that happened. Hughes went to Georgia Tech, where he’s now draft-eligible again, but he also posted a 5+ ERA each of the past two seasons.
Garrett Cleavinger (third round) was the first pitcher taken. A closer in college, he walked too many dudes in the O’s system and they traded him to Philadelphia in last year’s Jeremy Hellickson-Hyun Soo Kim swap. Don’t feel regret about it yet. Cleavinger has walked 10 batters in 8.1 innings for Double-A Lehigh this year.
Ryan McKenna (fourth round) is my current favorite low-level minor leaguer in the system. At age 21, he seems to have taken a nice step forward at High-A Frederick, where he’s batting .356/.434/.490 through 48 games. There seems to be a belief that he has the speed to stick in center field. Patience with a New Hampshire high schooler may be paying off here.
Gray Fenter (seventh round) received a $1 million signing bonus. Scouting director Gary Rajsich called him a “fresh arm.” He needed Tommy John surgery within a year of being drafted. Fenter is struggling for Delmarva this year. This is yet another weird pick that doesn’t seem to have worked out.
Seamus Curran (eighth round) has a cool name and I once read an article where the 6’6” lefty batter was described as a jolly lumberjack, which is also cool. He’s still only 20 and has socked ten dingers in 45 games for Low-A Delmarva, with an .843 OPS overall. Not the most interesting prospect in the system, but if he’s still worth mentioning a year from now, that could be interesting.
Cedric Mullins (13th round) may be your favorite prospect in the system. With a .313/.361/.510 batting line through 47 games for the switch-hitting center fielder in Bowie, what’s not to like? He’s also stolen eight bases. If you want him to be next year’s Opening Day center fielder, you’re not alone.
According to Orioles beat writers from Wednesday, Mullins is soon getting a promotion to Norfolk. He’s earned it. Good luck to him at the next level.
Tomorrow: The 2016 draft and its many pitchers (plus Austin Hays)