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“What if the Orioles don’t take Adley Rutschman?” preview: Bobby Witt Jr.

If Mike Elias thinks differently from baseball draft pundits, the Orioles could take someone other than Adley Rutschman.

New York Yankees v Baltimore Orioles
Mike Elias has four days to decide who to take with the #1 pick.
Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

Anyone who has spent any time at all reading draft preview content for this year’s baseball draft will not take long to realize that there is one name who stands out from the crowd as far as draft pundits and scouts seem to be concerned: Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman, a switch-hitter with solid defensive ability who inspires a variety of hype that might remind Orioles fans of the days when Matt Wieters was a hot prospect.

In the end, the only opinions that matter are the ones that will be shared in the Orioles draft war room, especially the opinion of GM Mike Elias. If he looks at Rutschman and sees what everyone else, including our own Nick Cicere, sees, then the pick will be Rutschman and there’s nothing complicated about that.

This is the scenario that the latest wave of mock drafts from Keith Law, Fangraphs, and MLB Pipeline expect. None consider it to be a done deal at this time, though, with the possibility being mentioned by all three that the Orioles could stray from expectations, as Elias did in the 2012 draft when he was the scouting director for the Astros and believed in Carlos Correa, even though “everyone” thought Byron Buxton was the best player out there.

If that does end up happening, the future success of an entirely different player than everyone else has been talking about will become important to Orioles fans. Today, that’s Bobby Witt Jr., the shortstop from Coleyville Heritage High School in Texas.

Anyone who got really, really into the Orioles tanking project last summer may have heard Witt’s name before. He was seen as one of the very early candidates for the #1 overall pick in this year’s draft. Some O’s fans pulled out a slogan, reminiscent of the “Suck for Luck” campaign among fans of bad NFL teams in 2011, which culminated in the 2-14 Colts drafting quarterback Andrew Luck. This one was a touch more profane: “Shit for Witt.”

The added piece of Orioles intrigue in “Shit for Witt” is that the Orioles happened to hire Witt’s uncle, Doug, as a scout towards the end of last season. It seemed like a relevant piece of information at the time, though it probably wasn’t then and still isn’t now.

A year later, Witt may not be the #1 pick, but he’s still a name near the top of the draft class. Depending on which publication’s ranking you consult, Witt is either the second- or third-best prospect in this draft. At MLB Pipeline, where he’s the #2 prospect, Witt’s profile excites:

A rare potential five-tool shortstop, Witt didn’t always make consistent contact on the showcase circuit last summer but scouts aren’t worried about his bat. The right-handed hitter shows good barrel control and some willingness to use the entire field, so he could hit for average if he modifies his aggressive approach. His raw power and speed are both plus tools, which, combined with his baserunning instincts, could make him a 20-20 player.

Witt covers plenty of ground at shortstop, has quick hands and possesses the arm strength to make all the necessary throws -- as well as pump mid-90s fastballs from the mound. His love for the game is evident, and scouts praise his makeup as much as his physical ability.

Witt comes with what the scouting world likes to call “bloodlines” - his father, Bobby, is a pitcher who had a 16-year MLB career that spanned seven teams. The rest of the world might call that nepotism, but there is some sense to it. If a player’s dad had athletic genes that led to his enjoying a long MLB career, the son probably got some of those genes and has a leg up on the physical gifts needed to make it as a professional baseball player.

The trick for talent evaluators is figuring out how far the apple fell from the tree. In Witt’s case, at least as far as this draft’s rankings are concerned, that is not very far.

The elder Witt was the third overall pick in the 1985 draft, following eventual Orioles B.J. Surhoff and Will Clark, creating a fun storyline that his son could go even higher still. Based on the mock drafts, there seems to be a belief that if the Orioles choose Rutschman first, the Royals will choose Witt second.

ESPN’s Law has Witt third on his board, noting the talent that puts him that high but the risks that keep him below Rutschman and California first baseman Andrew Vaughn:

... a true shortstop with potentially plus defense, a huge arm, good instincts and a history of hitting. He does have some backside collapse in his swing and he hasn’t faced great competition this spring, which, along with his age (he turns 19 in June), slides him below the two college bats at the top.

The reference to Witt’s age is one of the areas where different MLB organizations have different ideas. A high school player who is closer to 19 has basically been playing against kids a year younger than him, a year less grown in height and weight and with a year less opportunity to polish their skills.

That same 19-year-old high school player is closer to his own physical development reaching a peak, which the optimist might see as an opportunity for the player to be able to move faster through the minors and a pessimist might see as a sign that the player will not have the same chance to improve as a player once he hits the professional ranks.

This is a relevant concern for this Orioles #1 pick because Elias grappled with this idea in the 2012 choice between Correa and Buxton. Correa, born September 22, 1994, was only 17 years old on draft day in 2012. Buxton, born December 18, 1993, is nine months older.

The Astros, aided by analyst Sig Mejdal’s projections, judged, and have been proven correct, that Correa was the right player to take. This choice was explored in Ben Reiter’s Astroball, released last summer before anyone had any idea that Elias would be the next Orioles GM. Mejdal, as you know, followed Elias to Baltimore.

In 2019, based on what’s been reported, the Orioles aren’t comparing Witt against other high schoolers. He’ll be judged against Rutschman and Vaughn and possibly Vanderbilt outfielder J.J. Bleday. The Orioles might end up thinking Witt is the best talent, or that he represents the best value at the #1 pick if he was willing to sign a below-slot deal (as Correa did) to give the Orioles the opportunity to pick another talented player with their second pick (as Houston did after picking Correa, selecting Lance McCullers.)

The fact that the Astros of 2012 were led to Correa over Buxton might make you think the O’s wouldn’t or shouldn’t go for the 19-year-old Witt this year. However, another important principle outlined in Astroball is that a team shouldn’t rigidly discount the potential of a player just because he doesn’t feel like he fits a preconceived mold for a successful. Ignoring the possibility that a player could be an atypical success story is as much of a mistake as ignoring the risks of “old” high school draft prospects generally.

Maybe Witt is still the guy over a bunch of 21-year-olds. Or maybe he isn’t. The Orioles could still to do the obvious thing and draft Rutschman, and if they step off the expected path, there’s also Vaughn and Bleday.

Friday: Cal 1B Andrew Vaughn