As a “reward” for being the worst team in MLB last season, the Orioles will make the first overall selection in June’s draft. It’s a big deal. Every team wants to find a franchise building block with their first-round pick. The team at the top of the draft has the best opportunity to do that, and the Orioles desperately need to add a transcendent talent (or two) to their organization.
Mike Elias, the Orioles new general manager, has made his reputation through the draft. He spent time as a scout with the St. Louis Cardinals before becoming the director of amateur scouting with the Houston Astros and overseeing several drafts in which he picked Carlos Correa, Lance McCullers Jr. and Alex Bregman, among others.
Elias, along with his right-hand man Sig Mejdal, knows as well as anyone that the MLB draft is an imperfect science. For every Correa there is also a Brady Aiken or a Mark Appel, two players that the Astros selected first overall under Elias’s supervision that can fairly be classified as “busts” to this point. Aiken did not sign with Houston following an unfavorable post-draft MRI, and Appel retired from professional baseball prior to the 2018 season without ever reaching the majors. Both Aiken and Appel were highly-regarded amateurs that few were surprised to see selected first overall, and yet they didn’t pan out.
The consensus top prospect entering the 2019 draft is Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman. FanGraphs thinks so, as does MLB Pipeline, and ESPN’s Keith Law. The junior backstop has scouts drooling over his switch-hitting power, rifle arm and steady work behind the plate. Hitting .408/.505/.628 with nine home runs and 22 doubles over 67 games for the eventual NCAA champions a year ago doesn’t hurt either. He’s been even better in 2019, sporting a .375/.565/.875 slash line with five home runs in OSU’s first 10 games of the year.
Rutschman has received comparisons to Matt Wieters, another switch-hitting college catcher from a big program (Georgia Tech). Wieters may not have turned into the Hall of Famer that Orioles fans hoped for after the team selected him fifth overall in 2007, but he had an impressive career in Baltimore nonetheless. Over parts of eight seasons, Wieters was named to four all-star games and won two Gold Gloves. If the O’s received a similar career from Rutschman they would not be disappointed.
I mean, look at this guy. What’s not to like?
College hitters at the top of the draft are safe bets to become steady major leaguers at the very least. Take the 2015 draft for example. The college hitters taken in the top 10 of that draft were Dansby Swanson, Bregman, Andrew Benintendi and Ian Happ. All of them have already established themselves in the show less than four years after being picked.
The other side of that argument is that college hitters lack the “upside” of their high school counterparts. You get what you see from the college bunch, whereas teams can dream about how good a teenager they draft may end up being. Many of the league’s best hitters were plucked straight from high school: Manny Machado, Bryce Harper, & Mike Trout to name a few.
[Editor’s note: this section previously listed Kris Bryant as a high school player when he was drafted. User BUp22 correctly noted that Bryant was actually drafted out of the University of San Diego. This has been corrected.]
However, this year’s batch of prep stars lacks the star power of past drafts. The high school names that keep popping up as potential options for the Orioles at number one are shortstops C.J. Abrams and Bobby Witt, Jr. with a distant chance given to outfielders Corbin Carroll and Riley Greene.
FanGraphs gives all four of those players a future value of 50 on the 20-80 scouting scale. According to FanGraphs themselves, that would grade them as “average everyday players” with a projected yearly fWAR of 1.6 to 2.4. Rutschman, on the other hand, was given a future value of 60, making him a potential all-star that could accumulate 3.4 to 4.9 WAR per year. The Oregon State catcher is the only FanGraphs 60 in the entire draft and has clearly separated himself from the field in the minds of many scouts.
Of course, this is all projection. Every draft sees a couple of players outplay their projection. Abrams or Witt, Jr. or someone else entirely may prove to be the best talent available. Mike Trout wasn’t selected until 25th overall back in 2009. Something similar could happen here.
But Rutschman is as close to a sure thing as a front office could hope for in the draft. He would immediately become the club’s top prospect and one of the best catching prospects in all of the minor leagues. As a college hitter, the only realistic thing that could prevent him from getting to the big leagues would be injury, which is a concern for any player.
The new front office’s strategy is plain to see. They plan to devote as little money as possible to the big league payroll for now while investing in scouting and player development. The hope is that this will result in a few high draft picks in a row. Those picks will then fight through the minors together and emerge in Baltimore at roughly the same time, ready to take back the AL East. In a word: Tanking.
But that strategy can only work if enough good players arrive on the scene at similar times. Rutschman won’t need much minor league seasoning. If he is the pick, he could be in the majors by 2021, and the Orioles will want to start winning shortly thereafter. Could a core of Rutschman, Yusniel Diaz, Ryan Mountcastle and Austin Hays return the Birds to relevancy? That’s up to Elias and his team to decide. If not, they may prefer to select a high schooler, but that could indicate a much longer rebuild than some Birdland faithful will want to endure.