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The Orioles will benefit from Mike Elias’s experience with the #1 draft pick

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Elias was the Astros scouting director when Houston made three straight #1 overall picks. This is familiar territory.

MLB: New York Yankees at Baltimore Orioles Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

When the MLB draft rolls around in about two and a half weeks, the Orioles are going to make the first selection in the draft for the first time since 1989. It’s unfamiliar territory for the franchise and its fans, as not even during the long stretch of dark years from 1998-2011 were the Orioles ever so bad to get the #1 pick in the next year’s draft.

Having the first pick in the draft might feel new to O’s fans, but it’s not new to the people who are now running the Orioles. General manager Mike Elias served as the scouting director for the Houston Astros during their stretch of three straight years picking at #1 overall. Analytics guru Sig Mejdal, who followed Elias from Houston to Baltimore, was also an instrumental part of the inner circle in making those decisions from June 2012-14. These guys have been down this road before.

Draft decisions and the thought process that goes into them are generally made under a cloak of secrecy. There are scattered exceptions. In 2014, the Astros, then in the wake of three straight 100-loss seasons, were featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated with a now-famous headline proclaiming them to be “Your 2017 World Series champs.”

This was understandably ridiculed at the time. Then, in 2017, the Astros won the World Series. The article’s author, Ben Reiter, wrote a book, Astroball, which was published last summer before anyone could have known that Elias and Mejdal would be tapped to be the architects of an Orioles rebuild.

Astroball digs into the thought process on some of these past draft decisions in a way that probably no one will be able to do in the present as the new Orioles front office decides whether to take Adley Rutschman, Bobby Witt, Andrew Vaughn, or someone else with the #1 pick this year.

2012 - Carlos Correa

A chapter of Astroball bears the title of Graceful Beast. The phrase comes from an effusive scouting report filed by then-Astros scouting director Mike Elias about Correa. It’s a weird thing to say about a human being. Scouting lingo is strange. The Elias of 2012 wrote, among other things, of Correa: “Graceful beast with large, rangy frame. Physical presence along the lines of A-Rod or Cal Ripken Jr.” He saw an above-average hitter with 35-40 home run potential who could stay at shortstop.

Not that this preference, of which Elias eventually convinced his boss, Astros GM Jeff Luhnow, was widely known. Astroball describes a thorough Houston public relations operation that liked to pre-write bios of several possible #1 picks: Mark Appel, Mike Zunino, Kevin Gausman, Byron Buxton. The eventual selection of Correa caught the rest of the Astros organization off guard. The PR team had to scramble to write their bio of Correa.

The wider baseball press was also surprised. That included future Astros front office member Kevin Goldstein, then writing for Baseball Prospectus, whose final mock draft had Correa going third to the Mariners, and only then because he thought the Mariners would want the “workout stud” after passing on Francisco Lindor the previous year.

Post-draft analysis, including from ESPN’s Keith Law, tended to focus on the fact that Correa was likely to sign an underslot contract, suggesting that the Astros settled for a slightly lesser player in order to sign other players later, such as their next pick, Lance McCullers Jr.

It’s true that Correa signed for $4.8 million when the slot value was $7.2 million. What also seems to be the case, seven years later, is that the Astros saved a little money and got the best player they could have gotten even if they drafted someone else for closer to slot value. Correa has accumulated 19.9 bWAR to date, most in his draft class by a margin of several wins. He hasn’t hit 35+ homers yet, though he’s on pace to this year, and the above-average hitter and stay at shortstop predictions are true so far.

One thing I took away from this chapter is that if Elias really likes a guy, then he really likes a guy. Another takeaway is that the baseball rumor mill, which fuels the mock draft-industrial complex, will not know if Elias likes a different guy than everyone else likes. Does Rutschman give Elias that feeling that Correa gave him? Perhaps we’ll find out in two weeks.

2013 - Mark Appel

There is not a chapter in the book about the selection of Mark Appel with the #1 pick in the 2013 draft. Mentioned in the top of the 2012 draft class, Appel did not sign that year after being picked eighth overall by the Pirates. His bet on himself paid off in that he went #1 the next year and received a $6.35 million signing bonus.

Appel now resides on an infamous list. He is one of just three #1 overall picks to never make it into an MLB game. Appel was not a reach. “Everyone” thought he was up at the top of the draft class. The scouts liked him. Mejdal’s projections liked a guy who had achieved the kind of success that he achieved at Stanford, a big program. Neither the traditional thinking nor the modern thinking helped anyone get away from this bust-to-be.

For a smart organization, failure is a learning opportunity. Was there some red flag perhaps they could have had a better way of identifying? Astroball related an incident from July 2014, when Appel allowed seven runs while pitching less than two innings: “Appel returned to the clubhouse, screamed, and fired 80 baseballs, one after another, through the particle board that served as the room’s wall.”

If something like that happened to Appel as an amateur, that would surely have been filed under “makeup concerns.” Elias recently spoke with MASN’s Steve Melewski about the upcoming #1 pick. He noted that makeup is often one of the things that can separate a well-regarded prospect who succeeds and one who does not. It’s also one of the harder traits to quantify.

Whatever was learned from this pick, Elias and Mejdal have brought that experience with them to Baltimore. O’s fans can hope that what they have learned will keep them from making an Appel-level error again.

2014 - Brady Aiken

Brady Aiken, a lefty from a California high school, was the number one dude on the Baseball America rankings of draft prospects. He was at the top of MLB Pipeline’s draft prospect list. A high school pitcher being taken first overall had only ever happened twice, so this was somewhat unconventional to take him at the top of the draft, but as far as what the industry thought of Aiken, it wasn’t. Astroball on the thought process that went into the pick:

Years of scouting reports, funneled into and regressed in Sig’s algorithms, all suggested that Aiken was the draft’s best player. So did the less quantifiable facts that he was a five a.m. (workout) guy, and Peyton Manning on a surfboard, which meant that both the injuries and pressures that often overwhelmed high school pitchers might not reach him.

Aiken being drafted first overall by the Astros is also now infamous because they did not end up signing him. The Astros dropped their offer to Aiken after a post-draft physical to about $3.2 million, the minimum amount they could offer and still receive a compensation pick in the next draft if Aiken did not sign there. They eventually offered him $5 million, to which Aiken apparently never responded. Slot for the pick was about $8 million.

This was, at the time, seen as the then-bottom-feeding Astros trying to screw over a player unjustly, with the cascading effect of not signing Aiken leading to two other players, Jacob Nix and Mac Marshall, going unsigned due to draft signing bonus rules. When a player does not sign, the team loses that pick’s value from its available bonus pool.

Reporting from The Houston Chronicle’s Evan Drellich subsequently revealed that the concern the Astros had regarding Aiken was an abnormally small ulnar collateral ligament combined with something else in his elbow that made a full recovery from a seemingly-inevitable Tommy John surgery unlikely.

Aiken chose to go to IMG Academy in Florida in order to re-enter the draft in 2015. In the spring of that year, in his first outing at IMG, he threw all of 13 pitches before feeling elbow pain that turned out to be a torn UCL. Despite that Tommy John surgery, the Indians picked him 17th overall in 2015.

Four years later, Aiken has yet to advance above the Low-A level, the same level as Delmarva in the Orioles system. He also did not pitch in 2018, and looks to be on the path to become the fourth #1 overall pick to not make it to MLB. The Astros were pilloried in the press at the time. The passage of time has also proven that their concern was correct.

With the #2 overall pick in 2015, which the Astros received when Aiken turned them down, they drafted LSU shortstop Alex Bregman, who quickly ascended to MLB to become a key part of their 2017 World Series team.

We are all familiar by now with the Orioles physical. It has often been criticized as well, and yet, the next time it is publicly wrong will be the first time. With that in mind, the most recent mock draft published by Fangraphs, which suggests the Orioles will take Rutschman like just about every other draft writer’s mock draft so far has done, also includes this possibly ominous tidbit:

...if the Orioles are uncomfortable with Rutschman’s medical (he had a lower leg bruise, and back and shoulder soreness in 2018, and a shoulder injury prevented him from playing quarterback during his sophomore year of high school) ...

Should the Orioles end up selecting someone other than Rutschman, the signs were there ahead of time. In his interview with Melewski, Elias also spoke about health as something that can separate one top prospect from another. If they do draft Rutschman, it’s safe to say they’ve gone as deep into his medical history as they can manage to do and they feel comfortable with what they know.

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In a way, it’s heartening. The Astros totally whiffed on two straight #1 overall picks and it did not end up keeping them from winning the World Series. They still built a farm system and still developed players and still won it all, and two seasons after their title they’re still currently in first place in their division in mid-May by 7.5 games.

The three straight #1 overall picks to which Elias and Mejdal contributed significantly also started out with a smashing success: Elias’s graceful beast, Correa. This Orioles fan will feel a lot better if they are able to do something similarly great with their first pick that they make in Baltimore. They have the experience. Hopefully they can use it to find a fantastic future Oriole in a couple of weeks.