The MLB draft is a crapshoot, or at least, this is what front offices that aren’t any good at it have to tell themselves to feel better and their owners in order to keep their jobs. It is a challenge to identify the amateur talent with the best chance of succeeding at the highest level of baseball and there’s certainly some luck involved, but teams with good scouting and good development still manage to make it happen.
The Orioles, as fans are painfully aware, are not a team that’s had a recent track record of churning out top prospects and having them become useful big leaguers. Some of this was due to bad decisions like giving up draft picks to sign Ubaldo Jimenez, Yovani Gallardo, and Alex Cobb, and in giving up draft picks to dump relatively small amounts of salary owed to Ryan Webb and Brian Matusz.
Some of it was due to the O’s success pushing their top pick down the draft board, lessening the potential to find impact talent. You don’t get to pick the Adley Rutschman-type players until you’re really bad. And as much as you were probably glad when Dan Duquette and company lost their jobs, their last several drafts stocked the farm with interesting prospects, including current top 100 prospects in MLB, DL Hall and Grayson Rodriguez.
There will be a few years still before we know for sure which drafts succeeded and which were wastes. Prospects take time to shake out, or not, and the class of 2020 could take even more time to sort out than is typical since they won’t get to play pro games the same summer they were drafted.
One way the Orioles might be helped in their return to relevance is if they’re able to use their high picks to get talent that their division rivals can’t get. Is it going to work? Time will tell. Still, here’s how this shortened draft looks in the AL East, with MLB Pipeline’s draft prospect rankings. This also assumes that teams will sign all of their players:
- Total bonus pool: $13,894,300
- Top pick - #2 overall - OF Heston Kjerstad - Arkansas - #10 prospect
- Other top 200 prospects drafted: Jordan Westburg (#37), Hudson Haskin (#74), Anthony Servideo (#110), Coby Mayo (#132), Carter Baumler (#102)
Taking the #10 prospect with the #2 pick was quite a curveball. It went against what was expected by the mock draft-industrial complex and it’s the kind of thing where the O’s will either look like visionaries or like dopes who overthought the situation and outsmarted themselves. The year where you have the biggest draft pool is either the exact right time, or the exact wrong time, to get cute with the money.
At least based on these rankings, the Orioles stayed fairly close to the level of talent they might have expected to find with their later picks. Using the Fangraphs draft rankings, the O’s come off looking great, with Servideo and Mayo both coming in as second round talents who the O’s were able to get later on in the draft.
An un-fun reality of the draft to acknowledge is that a lot of players you spend time getting invested in will end up not making it. Shrewd late-round value can amount to nothing. So can overdrafts.
Two years ago, the O’s picked Pipeline’s #68 prospect in the 2018 class, Cadyn Grenier, at about the same area where they picked Westburg this year. They used a third round pick on the #87 prospect, Blaine Knight, which looked like good value. Both of these guys stalled out at Frederick in 2019. Each will have to change his trajectory to make it. Hopefully we’re not saying that about many of these 2020 picks in two years time.
- Total bonus pool: $9,716,500
- Top pick - #5 overall - IF Austin Martin - Vanderbilt - #2 prospect
- Other top 200 prospects chosen: CJ Van Eyk (#39), Trent Palmer (#114), Nick Frasso (#98)
If the Orioles not taking Austin Martin looks like a bad decision because Martin ends up as an amazing big league player, it’s going to be even worse that he’s benefiting an O’s division opponent, the Blue Jays. The Jays were a fairly conventional level of bad in 2019, with a 67-95 record, and still they got most people’s idea of the #2 prospect in the draft class.
It looks like the Jays may have had to settle for lesser talent later in the draft for that, since Martin’s bonus demand is probably over the #5 slot.Also in this draft class for the Jays is a Louisville outfielder named Zach Britton. A lot of people trotted out their tired 2016 wild card game jokes in response. Britton was not ranked, and according to MLB’s Jim Callis, has agreed to a signing bonus of $97,500, more than $300,000 below the slot value for that pick.
The Jays took pitchers in rounds 2, 3, and 4, a definite contrast to the Orioles, who didn’t draft a pitcher until their final pick.
- Total bonus pool: $7,474,600
- Top pick: #24 overall - RHP Nick Bitsko - Central Bucks HS East (PA) - #14 prospect
- Other top 200 prospects chosen: Alika Williams (#40), Ian Seymour (#115), Hunter Barnhart (#135)
There had been some speculation, including from Eric Longenhagen at Fangraphs, that the Orioles pick of Kjerstad at #2 was made with the Plan A being to take Bitsko with their second pick at #30. Only the O’s will know for sure, but if that was the hope, it was dashed by a division opponent.
Bitsko was something of the mystery man of the draft class, as until several months ago he was thought to be in the 2021 class, but he arranged things so he could graduate earlier and get into this draft. Then, COVID-19 meant he had no senior season.
The Rays may have all of their eggs in the Bitsko basket, since they used picks #57 and #96 on prospects outside the top 100, and their fourth and fifth round picks were not in the top 200 at all. Or maybe they just liked those players more than MLB Pipeline did. Five years ago, the Orioles used their second pick on Ryan Mountcastle, who at that time was generally not on top 200 lists. If you pick the right guy, it doesn’t matter what everyone else thought of him.
- Total bonus pool: $5,129,900
- Top pick: #17 overall - 2B Nick Yorke - Archbishop Mitty HS (CA) - #139 prospect
- Other top 200 prospects chosen: Blaze Jordan (#42), Shane Drohan (#147)
The Red Sox were stripped of their second round pick for cheating. If you’re at my level of Orioles partisanship, you may feel the Red Sox got off light, since the Astros were also stripped of a first rounder for similar cheating.
With their abbreviated draft, Boston charted one of the stranger courses there was, leaving the MLB Network broadcast fairly stumped as to their reasoning when they picked Yorke in the middle of the first round. They do seem to have made up for a clear underslot pick by choosing Blaze Jordan with their next one in the third round.
Jordan, along with having an excellent name, had a bit of a reputation among this draft class after crushing home runs in a home run derby at a big league stadium. The general impression of him, though, is that despite his being young and not turning 18 until December, he’s already “maxed out” in his frame, so he doesn’t have room to add power with growth like other prospects might. He will either succeed with the tools he has now, or not. Other rankings had him a lot lower than #42.
- Total bonus pool: $3,520,000
- Top pick: #28 overall - C Austin Wells - Arizona - #27 prospect
- Other top 200 prospects chosen: Trevor Hauver (#130), Beck Way (#95)
The only team with a smaller draft pool than the Yankees was the Astros. Though the Yankees have had their own recent cheating allegations, their lost picks were second and fifth rounders forfeited when they signed free agent pitcher Gerrit Cole. As the Yankees were, to my lament, very good last year, they were picking at the bottom of the rounds where they did have selections.
There’s only so much you can do when your first pick is so late in the draft, as the Orioles experienced in 2015 and 2016 when they came away with DJ Stewart and Cody Sedlock. Either could yet be a solid big leaguer, but you just don’t get the surefire guys down there. Then again, seven years ago, the Yankees selected Aaron Judge at #32 overall. When you get it right, you really get it right. They’ll be hoping Wells is that kind of guy too.
Which of the AL East teams do you think had the best draft in 2020?
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