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Orioles prospect season in review: Gunnar Henderson and the rest of the 2019 draft

Adley Rutschman got all of the 2019 Orioles draft hype, understandably. There are other players from the class worth keeping an eye on.

MILB: JUL 03 Gulf Coast League - GCL Rays at GCL Orioles
Gunnar Henderson in action in Sarasota.
Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The first draft that the Orioles undertook with Mike Elias as the general manager did not have any pitchers until the eighth round and had just two high school players drafted and signed across the team’s whole class. As the first overall pick, Adley Rutschman was the obvious headliner of the draft class, but it’s going to take success from the non-Rutschman picks to really add strength to the O’s farm system.

This is not an area where the Orioles have had success in recent years. Earlier in the week, The Baltimore Sun’s Jon Meoli observed that in this decade, the Orioles have had just two players picked outside of the first round who had a 2+ win season with the O’s. What’s more, Means and Mancini are players who undertook improvement on their own rather than from any direction from the previous O’s regime.

Elias probably won’t be able to turn this around immediately, especially when he mostly had Dan Duquette’s scouts feeding him information for his first draft. If the Orioles were lucky and good, though, they’ve already got several future MLB players coming out of the later rounds of the draft.

The draft brought into the organization a number of up-the-middle (catcher, shortstop, center field) players who were quickly listed among the team’s top prospects on MLB Pipeline. Second round shortstop Gunnar Henderson, one of the two high school picks, is the #7 O’s prospect, with competitive balance pick Kyle Stowers from Stanford at #12. Farther down, third round outfielder Zach Watson from LSU is #22, and fourth round shortstop Joey Ortiz from New Mexico State is #27.

Henderson got the post-signing treatment at Camden Yards even though he was “only” a second round pick. The Fangraphs evaluators, while a bit lower on Henderson than Pipeline, still offer a scouting capsule on Henderson that sounds exciting:

He played shortstop in high school but we have Henderson, who is an average athlete with middling infield actions, projected to third base. He squared up good pitching during his showcase summer, bolstering confidence in his ability to hit, and Henderson is a good-framed teenager likely to grow into a good bit of power as he matures. The hit/power combination has a good shot of profiling every day at third.

It sounds to me a bit like what was written about Ryan Mountcastle in the 2015 draft, except they’re a bit more positive about Henderson’s chances to eventually stick at third base. In 29 games after being drafted, Henderson had a decent enough performance not to cause any panic, batting .259/.331/.370 for the Gulf Coast League Orioles.

None of Stowers, Watson, or Ortiz were among the standout offensive players for the short-season Aberdeen IronBirds, where most of the college draftees ended up. Stowers did lead the team with six home runs in 55 games, but he only had an OPS of .667, and the best batter of the trio was Watson at a .236/.300/.418 batting line. If these guys don’t start hitting better with Delmarva next season, that won’t be as fun. Don’t spend the winter worrying about it.

Other than Rutschman, Aberdeen’s offensive leaders were also 2019 picks, with seventh rounder Johnny Rizer from TCU making a bit of an impression with a .305/.374/.537 batting line. Rizer was drafted as a senior, meaning he’s likely a lower-ceiling player.

Also up on the IronBirds leaderboard was another college senior, 21st round pick Toby Welk from the powerhouse program of Penn State Berks, who batted .344/.397/.500 in 48 games. Welk, whose potential was flagged by the new Orioles analytics department, signed for $1,000. The competition from the New York-Penn League is a long way from MLB. So far, Welk succeeded where they sent him, as did Rizer, and that’s to their credit. Good luck to all next year.

This draft class, as mentioned above, did not see a pitcher taken by the Orioles until the eighth round. Despite this, they managed to accumulate an impressive number of junior and senior pitchers from four-year colleges who went on to throw at least 20 innings for Aberdeen with at least a 9.0 K/9:

  • LHP Griffin McLarty (8th round)
  • RHP Connor Gillispie (9th round)
  • RHP Dan Hammer (13th round)
  • RHP Morgan McSweeney (17th round)
  • RHP Malachi Emond (18th round)
  • RHP Houston Roth (29th round)

Individually, no one of these pitchers are all that interesting. There’s a reason why they were there to be drafted anywhere from the eighth round to the 29th round. If any idiot could roam in, watch them pitch, and see their potential, or even run their stats through a projection program to see the same, they would have been taken before they were.

However, this isn’t something that we typically saw in the Dan Duquette drafts, where guys even in the deeper rounds were showing up at Aberdeen and having some success backed up by solid strikeout totals. Before, you might get a guy in the top three or four rounds, like Keegan Akin or Zac Lowther, who went on to strike out a lot in their professional debuts, but eighth round? 29th round?

Maybe it means nothing, but it’s different. To me it feels like either a sign that Elias was targeting different types of pitchers, or his people were doing a better job of adjusting those pitchers to the pros. Maybe both. Orioles minor league pitchers had strikeouts going up across the board this season.

Many words have already been written, and many more will be written, about the rebuilding of the Astros under Elias’s old boss, Jeff Luhnow, and ways in which the Orioles could end up following that formula. It’s an earlier stop in their careers where the later rounds of a draft generated a great success story, with the 2009 Cardinals producing four useful big league players in later rounds, including 13th round pick Matt Carpenter, 23 when drafted, who’s been worth 26.5 WAR in his career to date.

Others in that draft class for the Cardinals were Trevor Rosenthal, from Cowley County (Kansas) Community College, and Matt Adams, out of Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania. These are players who have figured prominently on successful MLB teams.

This is not to say there is any guarantee the Orioles under Elias will ever duplicate the success of a draft class he helped scout a decade ago. But for any Orioles fan out there looking for something cheery after another 100-loss season, some early interesting results from some late-round picks is better than nothing.