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Orioles 2017 draft review: Still hoping for the rotation of the future

If the Orioles are lucky, they’ll have multiple members of their 2017 draft class in a future big league rotation.

MLB: FEB 18 Baltimore Orioles Photo Day
Whenever 2017 pick Zac Lowther gets to pitch again, I’m going to be looking to see how he does.
Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Three years ago, the Orioles were on the road towards a calamity that now seems like it was inevitable. A series of bad decisions spanning years locked them into eventually having it all fall apart. Yet when the draft rolled around in that 2017 season, the Orioles were still above .500 and within a half-game of an American League wild card spot. They remained at least on the periphery through as far as Labor Day weekend.

We know now, looking back on that disaster and the one that followed in 2018, that the only players the Orioles were drafting in 2017 were ones who might contribute to the next good Orioles team, rather than ones who might still have something to offer to an unbroken streak of successful big league teams.

It’s hard to say for certain how then-GM Dan Duquette and his team of decisionmakers might have seen it. Even if they did feel some urgency to draft fast-movers to get up there and help within a couple of seasons, they were not going to be picking at the top of the draft in order to get a chance to find one of those top-tier near-MLB-ready college stars.

Since the O’s were an AL wild card team in 2016 - though it’s weird, isn’t it, how they never actually played that game - they were only slated to pick at #21 in the draft. We can be grateful that the O’s did not choose to either forfeit a first rounder by signing a qualifying offer free agent or trade away a competitive balance pick in 2017. Each of these things are among the regrettable aspects of Duquette’s legacy.

The balance pick in 2017 was in round B, at #74 overall. Their top three picks were #21, #60, and #74. That is a big difference compared to this June, when the O’s will be selecting at #2, #30, and #39. Hopefully Mike Elias and company can make the most of the opportunity, and of some of the 2017 draft class prospects who are still hanging around with fans having hopes for their future contributions.

First pick - #21 overall - LHP DL Hall - Valdosta (GA) HS

In 50+ years of June drafts, the best player ever taken at #21 overall, at least as far as Baseball Reference WAR measures it, was Rick Sutcliffe, The next-best was Jason Varitek. Those are some good success stories, but the quality tails off after that and over the whole history of the draft, the median career was worse than that of the O’s previous #21 pick, 1999 draftee Larry Bigbie (2.5 WAR).

A simple reality of picking this far down in the draft, even though it still counts as a first round pick, is that if any idiot could look at a player and see he was guaranteed to be a great big league player, he would be long gone by #21. That doesn’t mean DL Hall will or won’t be a failure, just that if he is even a modest success, he will have beaten the historic odds of his draft position.

Relative to the pre-draft talk and rankings, Hall was a fortunate player for the Orioles to be able to take. The Athletic’s Keith Law (then with ESPN) had rated Hall as his #8 player in the draft class, while the MLB Pipeline rankings had Hall at #14. The Orioles of 2017 were the beneficiaries of that slide and we can hope that the Elias-era O’s will continue to benefit from it by turning Hall, who’s now a top 100 prospect in the game in most rankings, into a big leaguer.

Here’s the Fangraphs scouting report on Hall, where he’s the #86 prospect in the game headed into 2020:

Ultra-competitive, athletic southpaws with this kind of stuff are very rare. Here’s the list of lefty big league starters who throw harder than Hall, who averaged 94.9 mph on his fastball in 2019: Blake Snell. That’s it. Because Hall’s release is inconsistent, not only did his walk rate regress in 2019, but the quality of his secondary stuff was also less consistent than it was during his very dominant mid-summer stretch in 2018, when Hall’s changeup clearly took a leap.

The writeup also praises Hall’s secondary pitches overall. That Hall’s problem is command is immediately apparent in his 2019 stats. He walked 54 batters in 80.2 innings at Frederick last season, though you can feel at least a bit better about that since he also struck out 116 batters.

Was that going to be enough for Hall to be given the challenge of a Double-A assignment for 2020? Since it’s unlikely there’ll be minor league baseball this year due to COVID-19, we’ll never know. The question of whether DL Hall’s development is hampered because of coronavirus is not one of the ten thousand most important questions for humanity through all of this, but once baseball matters again, it’ll be on the mind of O’s fans until it is answered one way or another.

Other high picks

The Orioles continued to pick pitchers with their third and fourth picks, dipping into the college ranks to get Zac Lowther (#74 overall) and Michael Baumann (#98 overall). The idea of a successful Orioles team in the near future becomes less farfetched if prospects like these are able to stick in MLB.

Lowther, a lefty, is a different sort of pitcher than Hall in that he doesn’t do it with velocity but rather more with spin rate, leading Fangraphs in the past to say he’s more exciting once you see his Trackman data. In 2019, Lowther posted a 2.55 ERA in 26 starts for Bowie. Exciting!

However, that did come with his strikeout rate dropping to a bit more than a batter per inning; he had an 11.0 K/9 between Delmarva and Frederick in 2018. And his BB/9 went from 2.5 in 2018 to 3.8 in 2019. Over the winter, Lowther’s performance at Norfolk was one of the things I was most interested in seeing in the O’s minors this year. Instead, well, you know.

Baumann split last season between Frederick and Bowie, and his 13 games in Bowie came with a sub-1.00 WHIP that also included a no-hitter. Between both levels, Baumann struck out 142 batters in 124 innings, and his 3.3 BB/9 was lower than either of his two previous professional seasons.

We shouldn’t lose sight of second round pick Adam Hall (#60 overall) either. Unrelated to DL, Adam Hall is an infielder picked out of the Canadian high school ranks. High school players from more northern locations are generally thought to be slower to develop since they don’t get to hone their skills as much year-round.

Hall, with a .298/.385/.395 batting line in a full season at Delmarva at age 20, is interesting because if that’s him before he’s fully developed then there’s real potential there. Look at that on-base percentage! Though it’s fueled by his being hit by a pitch 22 times more than by his walk rate.

It’s not a guarantee that Hall will keep getting better as he climbs the ranks. Presumably, he would have been headed for Frederick this season, and now it’s not clear when he’ll next get to show his skills or keep working on them. He’s stolen 56 bases out of 70 attempts as a pro player.

The players they didn’t get

The pick after the Orioles took Billy Rowell in 2006, Tim Lincecum was drafted. The pick after that was Max Scherzer. Some years, it really, really hurts to be one of the teams that busts on a high pick.

Since Hall is still a top 100 prospect in most places, and he was picked at #21 there aren’t a lot of guys in that “what if?” category. Still, two players picked after Hall in the first round are getting prospect attention right now. The Blue Jays selected Nate Pearson from a Florida junior college at #28 and now, three years later, he’s one of the top 10 prospects in the game after taking a huge leap forward in 2019.

In some ways, Pearson illustrates the “draft is a crapshoot” perspective, because the Blue Jays also had a selection at #22 and they did not take Pearson. They chose UNC shortstop Logan Warmoth, a player who, based on draft reports, I was hoping the Orioles might draft. Warmoth batted .235/.324/.333 between High-A and Double-A last year. Five teams could have grabbed Pearson before the Jays picked again, none of whom chose as well. It’s good to be lucky.

At #32, the Reds picked shortstop Jeter Downs, who’s since been traded twice, most recently by the Dodgers to the Red Sox as part of the Mookie Betts swap. Downs, as high as #44 on the MLB Pipeline top 100, also took off as a prospect in 2019.

Deeper in the draft, the Orioles chose a North Carolina high school prospect, Greg Jones, in the 17th round. Jones did not sign and went on to be a first round pick by the Rays last year. There are stories like these every year so it’s not worth being bummed about it, but it’s still too bad. It’d have been nice if Duquette could have found a way to fit a prospect like that into the draft class.


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