The Orioles have the first overall pick in today’s MLB Draft. For weeks, maybe even months, the expectation has been that first-year GM Mike Elias will do the logical thing and select the player atop just about every draft board in existence: Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman.
By now, you have undoubtedly heard all about the switch-hitting Rutschman and what makes him so special. He just finished up the 2019 season with a .418 batting average (fourth best in NCAA Division I), .580 on-base percentage (first) and .764 slugging percentage (sixth) to go with 17 home runs. On top of that, he is considered an above-average defender that can stay at the premium catching position long-term, where his bat will play up even more.
As the draft has drawn closer, the hype surrounding the backstop has only grown. MLB.com’s Jim Callis recently said that Rutschman is the best draft prospect since Bryce Harper. Obviously, Harper is a polarizing figure, but he was an athletic freak entering the 2010 draft and has put together an impressive career to this point. That comparison is pretty darn exciting.
Of course, we in Birdland cannot have nice things. Over the weekend, a report from Callis and Jonathan Mayo said that the Orioles were not set on selecting Rutschman just yet. This report indicates that the team is also considering California first baseman Andrew Vaughn, Vanderbilt outfielder JJ Bleday and Texas high school shortstop Bobby Witt Jr.
From the fan perspective, this is a disappointing development, but it’s more about optics than anything else. Amateur baseball players are more difficult to keep track of than their peers in basketball or football. The availability of college baseball games on TV or reliable streams online is sporadic, and you can forget about high schoolers altogether. We are at the mercy of baseball publications to tell us who are the best amateurs, and those publications have been explaining why Rutschman is such a slam dunk ever since the college season started back in February. Any other outcome at this point risks underwhelming the fan base.
What makes it worse is some of the speculation surrounding the Orioles possible reasoning for selecting someone other than Rutschman first overall: Money.
Each team is given a different budget that they must work within to sign their entire draft class. Every pick is allotted a value. A team may exceed that assigned value if they wish, but they must still adhere to the constraints of the overall budget. The thought is that the O’s may be able to sign a non-Rutschman player for less than slot value and then use those savings to nab another talented player later in the draft by wooing him with an over-slot offer.
The Orioles enacted this strategy last season under Dan Duquette, using some savings by signing first-rounder Grayson Rodriguez slightly under his 11th-overall slot value in order to help tempt pitcher Blaine Knight away from his senior season at Arkansas and high school hurler Drew Rom from a commitment to the University of Michigan. Elias used this approach to perfection with the Houston Astros in 2012, bypassing consensus top pick Byron Buxton in favor or shortstop Carlos Correa and then adding Lance McCullers later on because they knew they could save money on Correa’s signing bonus.
The logic in this approach is sound, depending on the players involved and who the O’s may be targeting later in the draft. But it actually starts to make even less sense when considering those factors for the Orioles this season.
Rutschman, Vaughn and Bleday are all college juniors. Do any of them really want to return to school for one more year, risk injury and the chance at a whole lot of money? It would seem unlikely. There wouldn’t seem to be any money-saving opportunity regardless of which one is selected.
Witt Jr. is the one in the group with a little more leverage. He turns 19 soon, which would make him draft-eligible again after his sophomore season in college. If he doesn’t like the contract offer following this draft, he could bet on himself and head to the University of Oklahoma for two or three years and potentially make more money as a slightly lower pick in a future draft as draft pools increase every season.
After making their selection at first overall, the O’s have to wait until pick 42 to make their second choice and then 71 for their third. From there, the difference in the slot values starts to become negligible. If the team is able to save a million dollars on that first pick, will there be a player worthy of such an amount 41 picks later?
The Orioles have certainly done their research on this draft class and discovered what players are likely to remain at 42 and at 71. Perhaps there is a legitimate case to be made for saving money at the top in order to add quality depth later on. I will defer to their judgement on that. FanGraphs thinks they could opt for a high school pitcher or middle infielder at 42.
All of this is to say that the Orioles should select the player number one overall that they feel gives them the opportunity to build the best overall draft class. That could mean choosing a perennial All-Star at the top along with a bunch of guys that end up being scrubs. Or it could mean picking three or four guys that turn in solid, but unspectacular careers. We won’t know the actual outcome for years from now.
But there is no need for the O’s to try and be too fine with that first pick. If they feel Rutschman is the best player available, they should choose him. If they like Witt, Vaughn or Bleday better, pick one of those guys. The distribution of money is certainly a factor in a decision as massive as this, but it should fall well behind determining which of these players has the talent and makeup of a future face of the franchise.