One of the ongoing questions of the Orioles rebuilding effort is what general manager Mike Elias is going to end up making of the players left behind in the system by his predecessor, Dan Duquette. Three of the players Duquette drafted in 2015 are currently waiting to find out what kind of further chance they will get now that the guy who drafted them is gone.
Does Elias think that any of DJ Stewart, Ryan Mountcastle, and Cedric Mullins can be a part of the next good Orioles team? If two of the three of them find their way into the mix, the Duquette draft of four years ago may help fans view his legacy more kindly than they do right now. If none of them do, then the Elias-era Orioles have that much farther to climb.
The nature of the draft, with teams who do poorly the previous season picking higher, meant that the O’s didn’t have the same chance to find a future star in 2015 as many other teams. The 2014 Orioles, as you may recall, were very good. Their first pick was not until #25 overall. The potential was there for some volume among the first two rounds, as the O’s had a compensation pick at #36 for losing Nelson Cruz, and a competitive balance pick at #74.
Four of the first 74 picks sounds interesting. In reality, it was not, because the Orioles chose to trade the #74 pick to the Dodgers for a paltry amount of salary relief rather than just release reliever Ryan Webb outright. Then, they did not sign the second round pick they made, Georgia high schooler Jonathan Hughes. So they really only got two of the first 36 picks: Stewart and Mountcastle.
Duquette’s Orioles did not select and sign a starting pitcher until the seventh round of this draft. This is a contributing factor into why they must now rely on a rotating cast of jabronis at the back end of their starting rotation.
First pick - #25 overall - OF DJ Stewart - Florida State University
The best player in baseball for each of the past eight seasons, Mike Trout, was famously a #25 pick in 2011. Trout aside, the potential to get a star this far down in the first round is low. A team must pick from a variety of flawed players and decide whose flaws can be worked through by its player development team, or who can provide value despite those flaws.
Duquette’s draft room deemed Stewart to be the flawed player most worth taking a chance on. His flaw was a funky crouched batting stance that hadn’t hampered gaudy college statistics but was expected to cause him problems in the pro ranks. Most, though not all, of the draft analysts still seemed to see him as a late first round pick. The prediction about the stance came true almost immediately, with Stewart mustering just a .218/.288/.345 batting line in 62 games with Aberdeen after being drafted.
To Stewart’s credit, he’s been steadily improving since, earning a 17-game stint in MLB last season where he batted .250/.340/.550, with three home runs. This was not enough for Elias to roll into the 2019 season with Stewart as the left fielder. The early March addition of Dwight Smith Jr. to the picture bumped Stewart back to Norfolk. He is batting like a guy who wants to get back to Baltimore, with a .285/.400/.562 batting line in 38 games, including eight homers.
At this draft slot, the Orioles also had the opportunity to take eventual #28 pick Mike Soroka, who’s already got 12 MLB starts with the Braves under his belt at age 21, and #32 pick Ke’Bryan Hayes, the Pirates infield prospect who is now MLB Pipeline’s #41 prospect in all of MLB.
Second pick - #36 overall - SS Ryan Mountcastle - Paul J. Hagerty (FL) HS
Through the magic of MLB’s draft pick compensation rules, Cruz’s 2014 Orioles season turned into the Orioles picking Mountcastle in 2015. Publications like Fangraphs and Baseball America had Mountcastle rated more in the 100-125 range. This was a reach.
Reach or not, four years out, Mountcastle is one of baseball’s top 100 prospects, sitting at #65 on Pipeline’s latest ranking. The Elias regime doesn’t seem to have had any interest in playing Mountcastle at third base, where he slid to after being promoted to Bowie. He is mostly playing first base for the Tides.
It’s tougher to fit a first baseman into the current Orioles roster picture, what with the late April/early May Chris Davis revival staving off talk of his possible release, with Trey Mancini being the team’s best hitter, and with Mark Trumbo’s eventual return from injury. Mountcastle is also hitting like a guy who wants to be in Baltimore, batting .323/.351/.530 through 40 games, with seven homers to date. That includes a .383 BABIP, so he’s probably benefited from some luck.
Taken within the next six picks after Mountcastle were Mississippi high schooler Austin Riley, Pipeline’s #32 prospect who has already homered three times in his first six MLB games, and Indians pitching prospect Triston McKenzie, Pipeline’s #37 prospect.
Other picks of note
Dillon Tate, acquired in last July’s Zack Britton trade (we knew him as Zach at the time), was the #4 overall pick in this draft by the Rangers. Currently on the injured list, he hasn’t been pitching like an Orioles rotation spot is in his future.
The choice of Hughes, the second rounder, remains odd, especially since the Orioles reached even more than they did with Mountcastle to pick him and then they didn’t sign him. Hughes was that draft’s 255th ranked prospect by Baseball America. He’s since gone to Georgia Tech where he posted an ERA of about 5 or higher each year. He went undrafted as a junior and now in his senior season is only pitching in relief where he has walked 20 batters in 44 innings.
Fourth rounder Ryan McKenna caught on fire with Frederick last season. The outfield prospect continued that into the Arizona Fall League, sparking hopes that he might be a surprise entrant in the Orioles rebuild picture. However, with his batting just .210/.286/.338 through 42 Bowie games this season, he is back more towards the fringes in any consideration of the possible O’s outfield of the future.
Mullins was the 13th round pick in this draft. Relative to where he was drafted, the fact that he’s already played in 67 MLB games is a smashing success. He batted a miserable .094/.181/.156 in 22 games for the O’s this year before getting demoted to Norfolk, where he’s now batting .225/.310/.348 in 21 games. Mullins got his chance to be the O’s mainstay in center field. He did not play well enough to solidify himself there. Can he earn his way back?
These were Duquette’s picks. There’s a new sheriff in town now in Elias. He brought no emotional attachment to these players with him to Baltimore. If Duquette’s leftovers wash out, no one will think that Elias was the dummy who ruined them, nor fault him for his predecessor taking them in the first place instead of players who may prove to have more potential.
For the sake of the Orioles rebuild not taking until like 2023 to see good baseball in Baltimore again, hopefully Stewart and Mountcastle are able to keep playing their way into chances and then play well enough to make themselves a part of the next good Orioles team.
Tomorrow: Hopes for future O’s starting pitching from the 2016 draft (plus Austin Hays)