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“What if the Orioles don’t take Adley Rutschman?” preview: J.J. Bleday

Conventional wisdom says the Orioles should take Adley Rutschman #1. They’re also considering three other guys.

New York Yankees v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

Draft day has finally arrived. The Orioles are going to make their first #1 overall selection since the 1989 draft tonight. On Friday, GM Mike Elias told reporters that the team was down to considering four players for the pick. Based on last week’s round of mock drafts, the four players seem to be: Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman, Texas high school shortstop Bobby Witt Jr., University of California first baseman Andrew Vaughn, and Vanderbilt outfielder J.J. Bleday.

Rutschman needs no further introduction. He is the top-ranked player on just about every publication’s ranking of this year’s draft class. He has been the top pick for the Orioles in all of their mock drafts up to this point, with the idea that the O’s might take someone else only a base to cover just in case. We looked at the cases for Witt and for Vaughn last week. Today, it’s Bleday’s turn.

Bleday was mentioned as a possibility for the O’s at the top pick by ESPN’s Keith Law. In a separate chat last week, he suggested that the odds of the O’s taking someone other than Rutschman are about 50/50. Although Elias has not tipped his hand much publicly about who has interested him, one thing that might have gotten Bleday in there as the fourth name is if Elias was seen at a Vanderbilt game this spring. Scouts love to talk about what other talent evaluators have been seen watching various players.

A scenario where the Orioles end up using the top pick on Bleday is probably one where they are intending to use less of their available slot money on the #1 pick with the hopes of signing high school prospects who might have otherwise chosen to go to college with their picks at #42, #71, or #79.

One thing to consider about the possibility of the O’s using this strategy is that, while they are picking #1, they don’t have the biggest available bonus pool. The Diamondbacks have four of the first 34 picks and seven of the first 75 picks. If there are three or four players worth throwing extra money at, Arizona has the most money to throw at those players.

Bleday is the #5 ranked prospect in the draft on both Fangraphs and MLB Pipeline’s rankings, while he comes in at #7 on Law’s ranking. If the Orioles were picking at #5 or #6, Bleday might be the player who you hope slips through for the O’s to draft him. Whatever the Orioles do, Bleday isn’t expected to get to #5, as all three of these publications most recent mock drafts have Bleday being selected by the Marlins at #4.

The most exciting thing to be said about Bleday is this: He led all NCAA Division I players this season with 26 home runs. That is a lot of home runs in 61 games. They were hit with a metal bat against pitchers who probably are not future MLBers, so it’s only worth so much, but that’s something. Bleday batted .354/.468/.747 for the Commodores this year, with more walks than strikeouts.

Law’s scouting report of Bleday is more that’s in the vein of, “Sounds nice, but not with the #1 pick”:

Bleday does it unconventionally -- he looks like he’s swinging an axe but doing it uphill -- yet he’s produced both at Vanderbilt and on the Cape last summer ... He’s a right fielder with the arm and power to profile as a regular there all the way to the majors, but teams will have to accept the unorthodox swing as part of the risk.

I just want to say that I’ve never in my life seen J.J. Bleday play baseball. I haven’t seen Rutschman, I haven’t seen Witt, I haven’t seen Vaughn. If I had seen any of them play, I wouldn’t be able to draw any meaningful conclusions about how they look because I’m not a scout.

What I can say is that as a fan of the Orioles, when I see things like “looks like he’s swinging an axe but doing it uphill” written by an expert about a player, I’m not super excited about the idea of the team going in that direction if they cut an underslot deal. Elias might judge differently, and he’s certainly got a track record with draft picks and with the #1 pick in particular that anybody has to respect.

Some team that’s high in the first round is probably going to be very happy that they get the opportunity to draft the player who generates this MLB Pipeline scouting report:

One of the best pure hitters in the college ranks, he has a quick left-handed swing, controls the strike zone well and hammers line drives to all fields. He has started to translate the bat speed, strength and leverage in his 6-foot-3 frame into at least solid power ... A two-way player in high school who showcased an upper-80s fastball on the mound, Bleday has a plus arm that fits well in right field. Though he’s a below-average runner, he covers enough ground to serve as a competent defender. His instincts help make up for his lack of quickness on the bases and in the outfield.

If 2018 had been the kind of run-of-the-mill bad Orioles season that we experienced from 2007-2011, the kind where they get to pick fourth or fifth, that would be one thing. This would be the guy I want. O’s fans could argue about whether to go for Bleday or the best pitcher, seemingly TCU lefty Nick Lodolo.

The reason why Rutschman and Witt seem like so much more compelling as prospects is because they are up-the-middle players. Rutschman is a catcher who everyone thinks will remain as a catcher, and Witt is a shortstop who everyone thinks will remain as a shortstop. Elite players at those positions are the hardest to find. That’s the conventional wisdom because that’s the reality that any team building its roster will face.

What if the $1-1.5 million less that the Orioles would presumably spend on Vaughn or Bleday was the difference between their adding two fantastic high school talents with upside to dream on, players who three years down the road could hopefully be on the cusp of breaking through to an improving Orioles MLB team?

If you’re sure, really sure, you have identified, and can draft and sign, those players with that money, is it worth it to take the right fielder who should still be pretty good, or the first baseman who should still be pretty good, instead? These are the questions that the Orioles draft room faces today. All of their hard work will come down to one pick.

Over the course of writing these articles, there’s been a common theme in responses in the comments and on Twitter: “Don’t overthink it.” That’s my own reaction as well. Rutschman seems like the obvious pick.

Sometimes, following conventional wisdom just means that you end up being wrong in the way that everyone else is also wrong. Perhaps Elias will end up being of a mind to go for something unconventional by picking Bleday first overall. We’ll find out later tonight.