You can never have too many starting pitching prospects. This is true even for teams who don’t have general managers who trade away some of their pitching prospects for bums like Travis Snider and Gerardo Parra, or who give up draft picks to sign the likes of Ubaldo Jimenez and Yovani Gallardo. The Orioles used to have just such a GM in Dan Duquette and that is one reason why you’re probably glad he’s gone.
The 2018 draft was just about a year ago, which doesn’t feel like very long. For the Orioles franchise, a lot has happened since then. Duquette presided over a trade deadline fire sale in July before losing his job at the end of the season. Things feel very different now. The major league team still stinks, but with Mike Elias now in charge, the organization seems to be heading in a positive direction.
After vaguely contending in 2017 before ending the season in dismal fashion, the 2018 Orioles were lined up to pick 11th overall in this draft. The rotating competitive balance pick system gave them a pick after the first round. However, the Orioles gave up their second round pick when they signed Alex Cobb at the end of spring training, so while they had chances to pick high in the draft, they didn’t have much room for slot creativity.
First pick - #11 overall - RHP Grayson Rodriguez - Central Heights (TX) HS
The Orioles had not selected this high in the draft since they used the #4 pick on Kevin Gausman in 2012. #11 is high enough in the draft where you start feeling like a team “should” find a useful regular there, if not a star, rather than the usual draft crapshoot. There have been four #11 picks just since 2004 who have 20+ career Wins Above Replacement, including three-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer and 2017 World Series MVP winner George Springer.
The most immediately noteworthy thing about the Orioles selection of Rodriguez is not who they took but who they did not. Pitchers who were generally regarded better than Rodriguez by the prospect writers like Keith Law, MLB Pipeline, and Baseball America were still available at this pick, including California righty Cole Winn, Arizona lefty Matthew Liberatore, and University of Florida righty Brady Singer.
You’d better have a good reason for picking the #22-ranked prospect at #11 overall. The track record of the Duquette drafting/development operation did not offer much reason to be confident that they had a good reason. In this case, perhaps Duquette and company were ahead of the curve and the doubters were late to the party in correctly identifying improvement that Rodriguez had made as a high school senior.
Rodriguez has already pitched well enough to push himself onto the back end of top 100 prospects lists, like MLB Pipeline’s, where he is the #97 prospect in the game right now.
The reason for this is simple. At the age of 19, in his first taste of full-season baseball, Rodriguez is blowing away the Low-A competition for the O’s Delmarva farm team. Rodriguez has struck out 61 batters in 43 innings across eight starts, and he’s walked just 12 men. These things are impressive enough that his 1.47 ERA and 0.837 WHIP do not feel like flukes or accidents. If this development carries to higher levels, he’ll be an exciting prospect indeed.
Second pick - #37 overall - SS Cadyn Grenier - Oregon State University
The Orioles could well be heading towards selecting Grenier’s former college teammate, Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman, with the #1 pick this year.
As for Grenier, he’s not quite as exciting right now. The prospect-industrial complex was impressed by his defense, but not by his hitting. That’s why he was rated #68 on the MLB Pipeline draft prospects list. Again, you’d better have a good reason for taking the #68 guy with the #37 pick. In the case of Duquette’s draft people, that reason seems to have been a belief that Grenier would be good enough to make it as a glove-first shortstop.
It’s less clear whether the new Elias regime is as excited about Grenier’s chances to hit well enough to do that. He’s playing this season at Delmarva, where he was assigned after being drafted last June. In 43 games last year, Grenier batted just .216./.297/.333. Now through 46 games of the 2019 season, he’s batting .249/.361/.353. That’s improvement, and the OBP is quite nice, but a guy who’s 22 years old and playing in Low-A is old for the level.
2017 Orioles draftee Adam Hall, selected from that year’s high school ranks, has joined Grenier in the Delmarva middle infield. The two have split time between second base and shortstop. Hall is two years younger and hitting a lot better. It’ll be worth keeping an eye on when the new O’s player development bosses decide to challenge Grenier at High-A Frederick and how Grenier hits when he moves up the ladder.
Other picks of note
Blaine Knight (third round) is listed at 6’3” and 165 pounds. “Everyone” knows that pitchers who are that skinny cannot possibly sustain success up to the MLB level, because it will be harder for them to be durable within a start and across a whole season. That’s a good reason not to take a player with a first round pick. If you like his stuff, it’s no reason not to take him in the third round. So here he is in the O’s system.
ESPN’s Law rated Knight the #12 prospect in the system before the season. Law wrote that Knight “is a four-pitch right-hander with plus control, can hit 95 but lacks a true plus pitch, with fourth/fifth starter upside but less certainty than Lowther.” Knight struck out 33 batters and walked only four in 26.2 innings over five starts with Delmarva this season before getting promoted to Frederick, where he’s made three starts with a lower strikeout rate and a higher walk rate.
Drew Rom (fourth round) is a lefty pitcher selected from the high school ranks of Kentucky. Unless you’ve read an Orioles prospect list that goes beyond 20 names, you may have never heard this name before. Here’s a nice first impression: Rom, just 19, has struck out 49 batters and walked just 11 in 37.1 innings across eight games for Delmarva so far this season.
That’s not a bad first full season to date for a guy who didn’t even merit a mention among the pre-draft top 200 prospects list of last year’s draft class. Low-A to MLB is a long way away. I can’t stress that enough. But a guy can only get out the hitters he’s asked to face, and Rom has done well to show himself capable of that when even dogged prospect watchers hadn’t heard of him a year ago.
In Rom, here is another case where the Duquette scouting apparatus seems to have gone out on a limb and seems to have found an underrated player who quickly showed more pro potential than the industry might have first anticipated for them based on their amateur results. Even better that it’s not Duquette’s development apparatus now trying to turn these guys into big leaguers.
Robert Neustrom (fifth round) had a nice first 19 games in Delmarva’s outfield, batting .329/.429/.529 before he got hurt. He last played on April 30. At 22, Neustrom, a University of Iowa product, was old for this level and was probably playing his way to a Frederick promotion before going on the IL. Hopefully he can keep it up upon returning to action.
Jake Zebron (18th round) was drafted from an Eastern Shore high school, which makes him inherently interesting as a local kid. He has only pitched 11 games as a pro, debuting for the Gulf Coast League Orioles last summer, probably to follow up at short-season Aberdeen this summer.
There is an acronym that represents all of the lament that one can feel about pitching prospects: TINSTAAPP, or, there is no such thing as a pitching prospect. It is so frightfully easy for a whole career to be delayed or derailed by an injury that could happen at any time no matter how careful a team is to protect the health of its players.
Orioles fans are plenty familiar with pitching prospects failing for reasons that have nothing to do with elbow or shoulder injuries. The famous example of the cavalry of Brian Matusz, Zach Britton, Jake Arrieta, and Chris Tillman ultimately netted the Orioles one useful starting pitcher, one useful reliever, one other reliever, and one guy who became good as soon as he left. They were never the core of a good, homegrown starting rotation here, as was dreamed long ago.
There are 13 starting pitchers on the Orioles top 30 prospects list, including three of the pitchers covered today. Some will not end up being good enough to make it to MLB as starters or even relievers. Others could get hurt. The un-fun reality lurking behind all prospect talk is that many aren’t going to make it and it’s nobody’s fault that they didn’t.
An interested fan can only hope that their favorite team has the right plans in place for their players to be the ones who make it. Under Duquette, the Orioles did not seem to have the right plans in place and the outcomes for their pitching prospects showed it. The early results for a lot of these players under Elias has been positive. If they can keep good things going for their players, better times will make their way to Baltimore eventually.