When the 2018 MLB draft rolled around, even though it was only early June and there was a lot of baseball season left, it was already patently clear that the party was over for the Orioles. The good times were finished. The only questions left to be answered were who would be traded and when, and who would be fired and when. The future direction of the franchise was completely unknown. It was not a very fun time to be an Orioles fan.
Even the idea of the draft as a hopeful sign for the future only offered so much comfort. For one thing, the Orioles were bad in 2017 but not nearly bad enough to get one of the top picks. Their 75-87 record left them in line for the #11 pick in the first round. The chances of finding a surefire impact player are much lower once you get that far down.
Although the Orioles did have a competitive balance pick after the first round, they’d forfeited their second round pick with the signing of Alex Cobb, which by day 1 of the draft already looked like the kind of thing for which the person responsible should be fired. It’s probably the case that the money being gone from the draft pool was a bigger constraint than not getting to pick from the second round talent pool.
If you were approaching the draft with a bit of trepidation, wondering how a probable lame duck GM and scouting department were going to make their decisions, you weren’t the only one. Things could have gotten stupid. Thankfully for O’s fans, the outlook on some of these draft decisions two years later is a positive one.
First pick - #11 overall - RHP Grayson Rodriguez - Central Heights (TX) HS
My very first reaction to this pick on draft night 2018 was, “Oh, no!” Having followed the pre-draft prospect talk, there were a number of pitchers who it looked like the O’s would get to choose from and all of them sounded like pitchers I’d like to see in the system. Rodriguez was not one of the guys mentioned. Keith Law, then with ESPN, had him as the #22 prospect in the class. At Fangraphs, Rodriguez was even lower, rating at #36.
Logan Gilbert, Cole Winn, Matthew Liberatore. These three guys were all rated higher than Rodriguez on a lot of the draft prospect lists and all were taken within five picks of the O’s taking Rodriguez. I dreaded that this would be one more Duquette decision to regret. At least one commenter on this website invoked the specter of Matt Hobgood, the Orioles first round reach from the 2009 draft who was a complete bust.
In draft talk terms, Rodriguez was what they tend to call either a “pop-up” or “helium” player. His stock rose as the spring went along and not every outlet or team had caught up to the improvement. One recent success story from a player labeled as a “helium” player is 2015 Red Sox first rounder Andrew Benintendi, whose early career path looks a whole lot better than a lot of the then-better-rated players who were drafted after him.
Two years later, it’s clear I should have had more faith. Rodriguez is in the top 50 prospects in MLB on just about every ranking, coming in as high as the #29 guy on the 2020 Fangraphs list. Rodriguez is close to or ahead of Gilbert and Liberatore in most of these present rankings. The Fangraphs TLDR scouting capsule on Rodriguez sounds fun:
Put a traditional velo/breaking ball prospect in an org that suddenly understands pitch design and you have Rodriguez, an exciting young arm who’s rapidly learning new tricks.
It’s good Duquette drafted him and good he and his people were fired before they had more than a few months to knock him off course, it seems. The 2019 results at Delmarva really speak for themselves. Rodriguez struck out 129 batters in 94 innings in his first full pro season, posting a WHIP of 0.989. He was three years younger than the average player in that league and he was just plain better than them.
There’s a long way up the minor league ladder from Delmarva to MLB, but it’s exciting to think about what the Elias development program will be able to do with Rodriguez going forward. Some of the Duquette leftovers aren’t so exciting. Rodriguez, well, it’s hard not to get your hopes up a little bit.
Bonus Grayson Rodriguez quarantine content:
Cadyn Grenier vs. Xavier Edwards
With their second pick at #37 overall, the Orioles chose Oregon State shortstop Cadyn Grenier. They eventually signed him to a $1.8 million bonus, slightly lower than the $1.92 million slot value, using some of that saved money to go overslot on third round pick Blaine Knight and fourth round pick Drew Rom.
Grenier is one of those guys where it hurts when you look at who was drafted next. At #38, the Padres chose a high school player, Xavier Edwards, who took $2.6 million to sign. Grenier is batting .236/.339/.369 as a pro despite being a college draftee in the low minors. Edwards, now in the Rays organization, is a top 100 prospect.
The Orioles probably had their reasons, and with the way their judgment looks about Rodriguez, along with 2018 first rounder DL Hall and 2013 first rounder Hunter Harvey, it’s not like you can fairly say they were always wrong.
Considering that more than half of all #37 picks have never even made it to the majors anyway, there are some things you just have to chalk up to being about luck in the draft. The other thing about Edwards is he only has one home run in 756 professional plate appearances. He’s young; he was promoted to the High-A level in his age 19 season last year. So he surely still has some development to do. But he could end up being one of those guys whose potential excites the prospect world and he never reaches it.
Although Knight stumbled at Frederick last year, Rom looks interesting after his 2019 season, where he was three years younger than the average player in Delmarva’s South Atlantic League. Rom struck out 122 batters in 95.1 innings there. I would have liked to see what he could do in Frederick in 2020. Rom was not ranked on even top 200 prospect lists before the draft, so that was a good find.
Much farther down in the draft, the Orioles picked the Eastern Shore’s Jake Zebron in the 18th round. He’s yet to pitch higher than the Gulf Coast League, which makes him something of a deep sleeper, but he’s got enough potential that he warranted a mention in Fangraphs top 39 Orioles prospects list for 2020 and since he’s a Maryland local, if he finds success in the O’s organization, that would be all the sweeter.
Though it’s only two years out from the draft and the prospects involved have only gotten to play one full season, a lot of the other players taken seem like they can be written off from having even longshot hopes of making it. This is not looking like a draft class that will have hits in the 7th round and 13th round and 20th round or anything like that.
It’s a good thing that things have gone well for Grayson Rodriguez so far, because if he was looking like a bust then this draft class would look like a bust in turn.
What grade would you give the 2018 Orioles draft class now?
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