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The Orioles’ draft surprise has its fans among prospect writers

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The Orioles surprised everybody last week, but still won praise for their draft class. Mostly.

NCAA BASEBALL: JUN 10 Div 1 Championship Super Regionals - Ole Miss at Arkansas
The Orioles pick of Heston Kjerstad sent them in an unexpected direction for their draft strategy.
Photo by Andy Altenburger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When the Orioles pulled off a draft shocker last week in selecting Arkansas outfielder Heston Kjerstad with the #2 overall pick, instead of Vanderbilt’s Austin Martin like pretty much every observer expected, there was something of an uncomfortable reaction from a lot of people who became used to a basic principle of the Dan Duquette years: If the Orioles are doing something weird, that is probably not good.

Bypassing Martin, who was nearly universally regarded to be the second-best draft prospect, in favor of Kjerstad, a well-regarded but still lower-tier prospect, is definitely something that was weird. It signified the likelihood that the Orioles selection of Kjerstad was made with the aim of signing him to an underslot bonus so that the team could sign high school players later on.

There was some further angst when the Orioles did not take one of those high school players with their second day 1 pick, instead going with Mississippi State shortstop Jordan Westburg. The O’s first couple of day 2 picks also came out of the ranks of college players. The “Angelos is cheap!” crowd emerged and through three rounds of the draft, the Orioles picks offered nothing to counter their belief.

A few days after the draft, the question of where the money would be spent has been answered. The Orioles took their high school players in the fourth and fifth rounds. Florida high schooler Coby Mayo - amazing Baltimore accent name - is reportedly set to receive a $1.75 million bonus, while Iowa high schooler Carter Baumler will receive $1.5 million. That’s about a combined $2.3 million over the slot values for those picks.

It will be years before reality offers an answer about whether or not these were good decisions. If Martin, who was drafted instead by the Blue Jays, turns into a perennial All-Star for a division contender, that will be tough even if the O’s picks of Mayo and Baumler still have intriguing potential. On the other hand, if six years from now, Kjerstad has set a new record for Eutaw Street home runs, nobody will sweat Martin, Mayo, or Baumler very much.

Initial reviews of a draft might well be meaningless, but they’re all we’ve got until results start coming in. The 2020 draft class will not even have any immediate professional results to judge since there is not going to be any minor league baseball in 2020 and the short season leagues may never return if MLB’s rumored minor league realignment plan is put into effect for next season.

The good news if you’re an Orioles fan is that you don’t have to look very far to find mainstream prospect writers with praise for their unexpected choices in this class.

Fangraphs’ Eric Longenhagen:

I think Baltimore crushed it. Cutting a deal with Heston Kjerstad at two enabled them to scoop up good high schoolers Coby Mayo (67th on my board, with huge power and arm strength, and who I have projected in right field) and Carter Baumler near the end of the draft. I also think Anthony Servideo’s 2020 breakout is for real.

It’s not really a surprise that Longenhagen is a fan of the draft class since the O’s picks aligned more with his own rankings of the class than they did for some others. He mentions Mayo, who was his #67 prospect, higher than other publications had him. ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel rated Mayo 84th while MLB.com had him down at #134.

Servideo is another player of whom Longenhagen was a bigger fan than some of his fellow evaluators. He rated as the #55 talent on Longenhagen’s board, though he was only #110 on MLB and #131 at ESPN. It’s nice to read the praise, but if the praise is mostly because the O’s followed his existing assumptions about these players, they could both still prove to be wrong.

At MLB.com, where the players the O’s picked deeper in the draft were not as well-rated as they were on Longenhagen’s list, Jim Callis listed the O’s 4th on his list of the top six big draft winners:

Baltimore seemingly got as much attention for not taking Vanderbilt outfielder/third baseman Austin Martin than it did for choosing Arkansas outfielder Heston Kjerstad at No. 2 overall, which diminishes the fact that Kjerstad possessed the best left-handed power in the Draft and starred in college baseball’s best league (the Southeastern Conference) just like Martin did. ... In between, they took three college position players in slugging Mississippi State shortstop Jordan Westburg (supplemental first), potential 20-20 center fielder Hudson Haskin (second) from Tulane and slick-fielding Mississippi shortstop Anthony Servideo (third).

It would have felt nicer if the Orioles, who had the #2 overall pick and the biggest draft bonus pool available out of any team, could have come in at #2 on the list of draft winners. They probably would have finished there if they’d taken Martin and then roughly at slot talents with their remaining picks.

What really matters are the results. This quick capsule highlights one big appealing thing about Kjerstad - “the best left-handed power in the draft.” Power from a lefty is a nice bonus because way more pitchers are right-handed than left-handed, so if a lefty has the expected platoon advantage against righties, that matters.

Having success outside of the first round will be more important for this draft than most because there’s no chance for an eighth round or 14th round pick to develop into something. Those rounds didn’t exist.

There was not universal acclaim from the prospect writing world. The Athletic’s Keith Law thought the O’s big gamble was more of a swing and a miss. On the top pick, Kjerstad, he notes “issues with swinging and missing” that made it a reach pick.

This was a familiar theme in Law’s assessment of the O’s draft class. Mississippi State’s Westburg “also strikes out too much and has to work on pitch recognition.” There were almost certainly many good future MLBers or valuable prospects on the board when the O’s picked Westburg. A disappointing outcome there wouldn’t be quite as bad as if Kjerstad doesn’t work out, but it still won’t be great.

Law is also not as quick as some of the other writers to look for the positives about the later picks like Mayo and Baumler that might have made then worth taking. Rather than believing in Servideo’s early-season breakout like Longenhagen, Law writes that he “has a uge swing that has led to a lot of strikeouts even with composite bats ... he did get off to a hot start this spring in nonconference play, beating up on pitching from Xavier, Louisiana-Monroe, and Alcorn State.”

Where others think Mayo has arm strength to stick at third base, Law sees footwork that “probably pushes him to an outfield corner or first base” and as for his offensive potential, he “looks like he’ll be vulnerable to offspeed stuff.” Of the draft class as a whole, Law sums up what is my great fear of the unorthodox strategy: “It feels like the Orioles tried to shave money at the top, but then didn’t target the right players with the savings.”

There is a running joke that “Keith Law hates (your favorite baseball team).” Anyone who convinces themselves that is true can usually cite a laundry list of examples of times when Law was negative. For Orioles fans, the team’s success in 2012, 2014, and 2016 was in defiance of Law and every other pundit’s idea of how a successful team could or should be built.

Law started to talk about weakness of the O’s farm system around in 2015 or so and that continued on to the end of Duquette’s tenure. The “Keith Law hates the Orioles!” thing came out especially in 2017 when Law rated the O’s farm system 25th of 30 MLB teams. Duquette’s favorite rejoinder was something like, “The people who rate our farm system poorly also picked us last in the division.”

Then the O’s were bad in 2017 and worse in 2018, in large part because the farm system had no capability to fill in gaps on the roster with a competent or better prospect, and Duquette eventually lost his job. Law does not bat 1.000 in prospect analysis. No one does. But he’s been right about the direction of the farm in recent years, so hopefully that trend doesn’t continue into his snap reaction of the 2020 Orioles draft, or there’s about to be a nasty speedbump in this rebuilding project.