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“What if the Orioles don’t take Adley Rutschman?” preview: Andrew Vaughn

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Mike Elias could still use the #1 pick on someone other than Adley Rutschman. One rumored possibility: Cal 1B Andrew Vaughn.

New York Yankees v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Just about anywhere you turn for draft coverage heading into Monday’s draft, you will find the analysts saying that Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman is the best player available for the Orioles or anyone else to draft. MLB Pipeline calls him “the complete package at and behind the plate.” ESPN’s Keith Law says Rutschman is “a no-doubt catcher and a switch-hitter with plus power.” You want that guy on your team. You need that guy on your team.

Or at least, you need that guy on your team if he is all that the prospect-ranking world says that he is. They can be wrong about players and their potential, even on players who “everyone” agrees are can’t-miss, the best of the best, and so on. If Rutschman gets drafted first or second or whatever and doesn’t meet those expectations, the GM who takes him will not be raked over the coals or called an idiot. But his team will still be worse off than if he took a better player.

The task of Orioles GM Mike Elias is to tune out that noise from “everyone” and listen to his scouts, his analysts, and himself to decide if Rutschman is that guy. Recent mock drafts from Law, Fangraphs, and MLB Pipeline all suggest that Elias might turn his eyes elsewhere, either because of medical concerns about Rutschman, or because he thinks they might be able to get more talent into the system by getting a different top talent for less money at the #1 pick, in order to draft and sign better players later in the draft.

Yesterday, I looked at Oklahoma high school shortstop Bobby Witt Jr., son of a former MLBer, as one of the non-Rutschman options. Another, according to the Fangraphs duo of Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel, is University of California first baseman Andrew Vaughn. Note that as of Wednesday, they wrote chances were “pretty slim” of the O’s taking someone other than Rutschman, and that Vaughn is considered less likely than Witt if the Orioles do look elsewhere.

Long-suffering Orioles fans can be forgiven for being reminded, every time there’s any whiff of the Orioles using their top pick on some “reach” or “signability” sort of pick, of busted 2009 top pick Matt Hobgood. If the O’s do draft Vaughn, fans shouldn’t feel like it’s a Hobgood situation. Everyone thinks Vaughn is good, too. He’s the #2 prospect in Law’s ranking, and #3 from Fangraphs and MLB Pipeline.

One strange thing about Vaughn is that all three of these outlets have him listed at a different height. Law says that Vaughn is 5’10”. Fangraphs lists him at 5’11”, while Pipeline gives him a solid 6’0”.

None of these heights are short for an adult male but when it comes to an adult male whose aim is to be a future MLB player, they are the sort of thing that might prompt a similar question to what Leia asked Luke when he first walked into her Death Star prison cell: “Aren’t you a little short for a first baseman?”

Vaughn, whatever his real height may be, is a little short for a first baseman. Considering him as a top draft prospect requires ignoring the conventional wisdom of what a first baseman “must” look like. It also requires ignoring the conventional wisdom that says to not draft a first baseman high in a draft and focusing more on things like what makes Law rank him as the #2 player in this draft class:

Vaughn won the Golden Spikes last year and is raking again, now at .385/.539/.728 for the Golden Bears. He’s the best pure bat in the class with a quiet approach and clean right-handed swing that produces hard contact and above-average power, along with probably the best plate discipline in the class.

Since Law wrote this scouting report, Vaughn’s batting line has improved to .387/.549/.728, with 15 home runs in 50 games. Don’t get too excited about college stats because they don’t use wood bats and most of the players Vaughn will face in even in a good conference like the Pac-12 aren’t future MLBers.

If you’re a GM at the start of a rebuild who needs to get good players in the system, you can do a lot worse than “the best pure bat in the class” - as long as the GM believes, and is correct to believe, that’s actually Vaughn.

It’s not just Law who can write an impressive-sounding report of Vaughn’s positives. Here’s MLB Pipeline:

Vaughn could very well be the best all-around hitter in this Draft class. He has a very advanced approach at the plate, one that has allowed him to walk much more than he has struck out throughout his Cal career, with a knack for barreling up the baseball. He doesn’t sacrifice power as a result, showing the ability to hit the ball out to all fields, profiling as a true middle-of-the-order run producer in the future. He’s a first baseman only, though he thinks he could handle third or the outfield, but should be fine at first, with decent hands and a solid arm that allowed him to pitch as a freshman.

The “walked more than struck out” fact is the sort of skill that one would hope is easier to carry over from college to the pros. Notwithstanding a quality gap of umpiring, a ball is a ball and a strike is a strike everywhere. One MLB hitter who was like this is Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon. He doesn’t walk more than he strikes out as an MLBer, but he has walked 10.2% of the time in his career while striking out only 16% of the time.

Vaughn’s belief that he could play third base or the outfield is supported by a note in the Fangraphs mock draft that Elias was present recently as Vaughn took grounders at third base. If Elias was convinced, maybe that makes the Orioles a little bit more likely to choose Vaughn. If he wasn’t, then it would really have to be Vaughn’s bat that would sell him on Vaughn.

The brief Fangraphs TL;DR scouting report on Vaughn introduces one more wrinkle to his overall profile:

Dreaded R/R first baseman without physical projection, but he had a cartoonish sophomore year (.400/.530/.820), is having a similar start to 2019 and no one doubts he’ll hit.

The word “dreaded” is in there because “everyone” is inherently suspicious, when it comes to drafting, of picking a right-handed hitter who is already a first baseman. Right-handed hitters are less exciting, because most pitchers that they will face are also right-handed and will enjoy a platoon advantage against them. First basemen are less exciting because it’s the least demanding position to play. And he’s short!

Many MLB teams this season have right-handed batting first basemen. Some of them are very good players whose own draft stock was hampered by this bias being short-sightedly applied to them, such as Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. Current Oriole Trey Mancini lasted until the eighth round of the 2013 draft due to this same effect.

Not many MLB teams have short first basemen. Only four have a regular first baseman who is listed at 6’0” or shorter. The only one under 6’0” is Cleveland’s Carlos Santana, who is a switch-hitter who began his career as a catcher. So if Vaughn is drafted and makes it to MLB, he will be a first baseman who doesn’t look like any other first basemen.

Elias is not going to write off Vaughn solely because of this factor. This is one of the important ideas of the Astros drafting philosophy discussed in Ben Reiter’s Astroball that Elias has likely brought with him: Don’t ignore a player just because he doesn’t check the boxes that tradition says mean success.

The famous example of this is the best player in the game right now, Mike Trout. Everyone, in 2009, “knew” that you were not going to find a quality player at a New Jersey high school beating up on inferior competition, especially in a rainy spring where the player was seen by scouts fewer times. One reason “everyone” knew this is famous Orioles 2006 draft bust Billy Rowell. Trout was not Rowell, and so the Angels had a future Hall of Famer fall into their lap with the 25th pick.

Is Vaughn going to be a mold-breaker in a similar way? If Elias thinks the answer is yes, then Vaughn might be his guy with the #1 pick. If he thinks that Vaughn will ultimately not meet these expectations, or that even if Vaughn does perform as expected, that won’t be as good as Rutschman or Witt or someone else, then another GM is going to have to be the one to decide to take on the “curse” of the short, right-handed hitting first baseman.

Monday: Vanderbilt OF J.J. Bleday