The 2019 Orioles, like the 2018 team before them, are a very, very bad baseball team. As things stand right now, they are in line for a second consecutive #1 overall pick in next year’s draft, with a top 5 pick in the draft seeming likely even if they manage to improve somewhat over the remainder of the season.
One reason that the Orioles are where they are right now is that there is not a lot of hope for things to get better for the MLB club this year. The roster is a mess and the holes have not been plugged by any of the Norfolk call-ups to date. Maybe September will bring auditions for some prospects like Ryan Mountcastle or Keegan Akin to get a head start on figuring out the 2020 roster, but other than that, this is it.
Excitement for the near future is in short supply. With that in mind, there’s still the dream of things being better some day down the road, and a big way that will start happening is if the Mike Elias Orioles hit on their top draft choices during these lean years where the MLB club is bereft of talent.
The 2020 draft is almost a year away. That doesn’t mean there’s not a rough, early idea of who might be the top prospects in the draft. Things will be subject to change as players perform (or don’t) on the Cape Cod League, or for high schoolers, in summer showcase events in different places, and then how they play and how healthy they stay in their next regular baseball season next spring.
Still, last summer, the two players who got the most talk as possible future #1 picks were Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman and Texas high school shortstop Bobby Witt Jr., who ended up being the #1 and #2 overall picks in the 2019 draft after all. Sometimes the early favorites a year out are still the names to know when the draft rolls around.
Three of the big mainstream publications have already started their preliminary look ahead to 2020’s draft. The Fangraphs team has a rough but large subject-to-change ranking, MLB Pipeline published an early mock draft of the top ten picks, and ESPN wrote an article with ten names to know for the 2020 draft.
There are five players who appear in the top ten of all three of these lists. That doesn’t make it a guarantee that they’ll be the first five players picked in next year’s draft, but it’s interesting that they’re the ones who the experts find interesting right now.
This is especially true for University of Georgia right-hander Emerson Hancock, who’s #1 on the Fangraphs ranking, #1 in Pipeline’s mock, and the first player listed in the ESPN article. Don’t get too attached to any of them at this point, since at most the Orioles will be able to select one of these players.
RHP Emerson Hancock - University of Georgia
MLB’s Jim Callis points out in his early mock draft that if Hancock had been eligible for this year’s draft, he would have been the first pitcher selected. That may be more of a reflection of the pitching talent in this year’s draft, but it’s still something.
The good: “runs his fastball up to 98 mph, has a potential out pitch in his slider and possesses two more effective offerings in his changeup and curveball.”
The bad: Callis also notes that Hancock missed starts this spring due to a lat injury and his command slipped after that. If he doesn’t correct that next spring, he won’t still be at the top of the mocks when May rolls around.
ESPN’s David Schoenfield pointed out that there’s a big difference in the strikeout totals between Hancock and 2018 #1 pick Casey Mize, a fellow SEC hurler. Hancock struck out 97 batters in 90.1 innings in this, his sophomore season. Mize, on the way to being the #1 pick, struck out 156 batters in 114.2 innings of his junior season. If Hancock is able to lay waste to the SEC next season, he could turn out to be just the guy the O’s are looking for.
Tanking Slogan: “Schlock for Hancock”
1B Spencer Torkelson - Arizona State
My reaction to seeing Torkelson listed this high on prospect lists is basically the same as I experienced about seeing California first baseman Andrew Vaughn high on draft lists for this June’s draft. Is a first baseman going to be the guy that’s part of a transformation of a moribund franchise? If he’s really that good, ignoring him as a prospect because of this would be stupid, but as a fan who knows very little, it would be hard to feel good about that until the guy started lighting up the lower minors.
Callis calls him “the premier power prospect in the 2020 draft” - a much more exciting thing to read. As a freshman, Torkelson broke a school record with 25 home runs. The record had stood since the days of Barry Bonds. He hit another 22 homers this spring, though Schoenfield points out that’s less impressive relatively, as the school moved the fences in before the season and Torkelson still hit fewer homers.
Tanking Slogan: “Borked for Torkelson”
C Patrick Bailey - North Carolina State
The only right way to approach the MLB draft is to take the best player available. What if you think that the best player available is a switch-hitting catcher when you only just took a switch-hitting catcher with the top pick last time? The Orioles faced a question like this more than a decade ago when Buster Posey was available one year after they drafted Matt Wieters. Perhaps they’ll face a similar one having taken Rutschman this year with Bailey as a candidate next spring.
The early Fangraphs scouting report on Bailey calls him “a solid athlete and catcher, with a plus arm and solid receiving.” They compare him to a recent predecessor of Bailey’s behind the dish at NC State, 2016 Cardinals 7th round pick Andrew Knizner, who’s thrown out 53% of runners at Triple-A this season, though he’s only batting .276/.351/.423 with five homers even with the minor league juiced balls.
Tanking Slogan: “Failey for Bailey”
CF Pete Crow-Armstrong - Harvard-Westlake (CA) HS
Schoenfield considers Crow-Armstrong “the top all-around high school position player” due to this array of tools: “A lefty swinger and thrower, Crow-Armstrong draws rave reviews for his plus-plus speed, hitting instincts and defense in center field. His approach is more line drives right now, but he’s performed well against top competition and his 6-foot-1 frame should add some power as he matures.”
We know that Mike Elias wants to bolster the up the middle positions for the Orioles in the future - catcher, shortstop, center field. He drafted that way in 2019. If the Orioles find themselves with another high pick next year, they’ll surely be considering the top high school talent, whether that ends up being Crow-Armstrong or someone else by the time the draft rolls around.
Tanking Slogan: “Defeat for Pete”
2B/3B Austin Martin - Vanderbilt
Although Martin is on all three of these early lists, there’s some divergence. Callis put Martin as the #3 pick, while Fangraphs ranks him 6th and he’s listed 10th on the unnumbered ESPN preview. If that holds, he’d probably be more of a “If they try to go under slot...” pick at #1 next June. The Orioles will hold a competitive balance pick at the end of the first round, as well as their regular pick early in the second round, so there could be some value to that strategy.
Callis writes that, heading into the College World Series, Martin led all SEC batters with a .410 average and .503 on-base percentage. SEC competition is good for the college ranks but it still pales compared to what he’d face on the way up to MLB. Callis calls the power “developing,” though that means Martin went from just one homer as a freshman to six as a sophomore. If that continues to develop in his draft year next spring, he’d definitely be worth keeping an eye on.
Tanking Slogan: “Shartin’ for Martin”
With the Orioles not picking a pitcher until the eighth round of the draft this year, I like the idea of their being able to zero in on the best pitcher in the 2020 draft. That’s assuming they get to pick #1, of course. Though they’re very bad, something strange could happen and they could improve slightly while their competition at the bottom, especially the Royals, stays just as bad.
If another 11 months of amateur baseball reveals the best pitcher to be Hancock, and if the Orioles are in a position to pick him, great. If next spring shows that someone else is deserving of consideration, I trust that Elias and company will figure out who that person is and get them into the O’s organization. For now, though, just for fun, I say, “Schlock for Hancock!”