In the more innocent time four months ago where there was nothing to impede the run-up to the baseball season, there was one thing that “everyone” knew about the 2020 Orioles: They were going to be very bad. That’s because they were very bad in 2018, very bad in 2019, and the offseason moves before 2020 like trading Jonathan Villar and Dylan Bundy were likely to make them worse in the coming season.
A significantly shortened season due to COVID-19 and ownership foot-dragging opens up the small possibility of a fluky outcome over a small sample size. The most likely outcome remains that the Orioles will be pretty bad, with a shortened season seeming to cut off opportunities for even late-season prospect call-ups that might slightly improve the team and give some hopeful sign for the future. The team’s record after 60 games last year was 19-41.
What it all adds up to is that the Orioles will probably be headed towards another high draft pick in next year’s draft. This is one of the few benefits when your favorite baseball team is bad. They get one of the best chances to pick one of the best players in the draft class. Of course, for an Orioles fan in 2020, we’re left hoping that the swerve move towards a slightly lower tier talent works out.
Projecting the better players in a draft class almost a year ahead of time is going to involve some misses at the best of times. The 2021 draft class will have had both few looks at their talent in 2020 and their 2021 seasons could yet experience disruptions as well. So in addition to the usual, where a lot can change based on performance, it could also be the case that a lot will just remain unknown with no one being able to showcase themselves.
At this time two years ago, “everyone” thought the #1 and #2 picks in 2019 would be Adley Rutschman and Bobby Witt Jr. That’s exactly what happened last year. Around this time last year, I looked at three draft writers early 2020 draft lists and highlighted five common names across those lists.
The composite list included eventual #1 pick Spencer Torkelson, as well as the guy a lot of people hoped the Orioles would take, Austin Martin. The year-early idea of the best draft prospect, Georgia’s Emerson Hancock, was picked #6, and all five players were drafted before pick #19. That’s not too shabby. Eventual #2 overall pick Heston Kjerstad’s name did not come up.
With the understanding that the fortunes of draft prospects could change significantly, and that any fluky better-than-expected 2020 performance from the Orioles could also keep them away from the very top of the draft, here are some early names to keep in mind. These are taken from ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel, Fangraphs’ Eric Longenhagen, and MLB Pipeline’s duo, Jonathan Mayo and Jim Callis.
RHP Kumar Rocker - Vanderbilt
Three of the first four picks the Orioles made in this draft were from the SEC, and they probably spent some time watching Rocker’s Vanderbilt teammate, Martin. I would guess they already have a decent idea of whether they like Rocker or not. He has had a lot to like about his college performance already, including when he threw a no-hitter as part of Vanderbilt’s route to last year’s college baseball championship. Not bad for a freshman.
McDaniel on the pluses:
At his best, Rocker’s fastball velocity would sit at 94-98 mph for a couple of innings and he’d flash a 65- to 70-grade slider ... he projects to settle with two comfortably plus pitches in his fastball and slider, with starter command, delivery and build along with a peerless track record of success at Vandy.
Among the minuses are concerns that he’s already “maxed out” physically, meaning that unlike prospects who get the “projectable” label he won’t be adding any strength or velocity he’s not already showing.
Tanking slogan: “FUBAR for Kumar”
RHP Jack Leiter - Vanderbilt
In a recent MLB Pipeline podcast, Callis and Mayo raised the possibility that Rocker and Leiter could be college teammates going 1-2 in the draft. Leiter, the son of longtime MLB pitcher and current MLB Network analyst Al Leiter, went unsigned out of high school just last year, believed to be because of a $4 million price tag to sign even though he was, as McDaniel writes, “a nonprojectable 19-year-old prospect who wasn’t quite consistent enough.”
Despite having just an abbreviated freshman season of college results to show off, he’s moved up the rankings for 2020, when he’ll be a draft-eligible sophomore. Longenhagen on what makes Leiter, for now, his #1 2021 prospect:
Leiter is a plus athlete with a good body ... a spin axis that is coveted among progressive clubs, and his fastball plays at the top of the strike zone. At his best, Leiter was up to 98 mph and spotting a plus curveball with enough command to draw whiffs.
There were vague rumblings from draft writers that Orioles GM Mike Elias might be trying to eschew pitching high in the draft after his Houston-era experience drafting busts Brady Aiken and Mark Appel. It’s hard to know how much that’s for real, or if it was just a matter of there being better position prospects in this draft as well as last year’s draft.
Tanking slogan: “Slack for Jack,” or if you want to feel a little British, “Shite-er for Leiter”
3B/RHP Brady House - Winder-Barrow HS (GA)
One uniting theme of the Orioles picks in 2020 was that Elias went towards guys with power potential. He might already have strong feelings about House, who McDaniel says “makes you wonder if he was built in a lab to play baseball.” That includes that House “might already have 70-grade raw power,” or at least 30+ home run potential, and he’s been impressing in high-level games even against competition that’s been older than him.
There’s not as much in these early, basic scouting reports to suggest he’d end up as some kind of Ohtani-like two-way player, though he is hitting 95 already, according to Longenhagen, and is listed as both at Fangraphs. Longenhagen writes of House as having “Dwight Howard proportions,” which I don’t think I have ever heard about any baseball player before.
Tanking slogan: “Lousy for House-y”
RHP Jaden Hill - LSU
It’s an SEC-heavy list so far and there’s still one more to come. Having another LSU pitcher around would be exciting for Orioles broadcaster and former #1 overall pick Ben McDonald. Whether Hill remains near the top is less of a sure thing, since he has already dealt with a strained UCL that interrupted his freshman action and he didn’t get much chance to prove himself as a sophomore.
On the other hand, as McDaniel writes at ESPN:
He came out this spring hitting 98.5 mph per TrackMan and the changeup was still plus and now the slider also was plus.
I’ve always wondered what Kevin Gausman (another LSU alum, you may recall) might have looked like as an Oriole if there was a competent pitching development program here in the Dan Duquette days. If the O’s end up with Hill a year from now, maybe we’ll find out what Elias’s people do better to actually develop off-speed pitches.
Tanking slogan: “Fadin’ for Jaden”
CF Jud Fabian - Florida
Fabian is #10 on the early Fangraphs 2021 prospect list. A bonus is that his younger brother, Deric Fabian, a high school player committed to Florida, is ranked at #48, so a team with a high first round pick and a high second round pick could theoretically draft both Fabian brothers. That would be cool, as long as they both became Orioles. Otherwise the story isn’t worth quite so much.
His scouting capsule from McDaniel at ESPN is not the most exciting of this bunch:
For some, he was a well-rounded tweener, but he broke out of that profile with a loud Cape performance last summer, though there’s arguably no single plus tool in his arsenal.
The 2020 season did not offer Fabian much of an opportunity to show whether he has any above-average baseball tools, either in SEC action or if he did another round of summer ball in the Cape Cod League. SEC conference play barely got started and the Cape is canceled.
Tanking slogan: “Dud for Jud”
One thing about the early names from the 2021 draft class compared to the last couple of years is that it’s a bit more pitching heavy at the top, especially with three of these guys being college pitchers.
If the Orioles are the 2020 failures everyone expected to see across a full season and Rocker or Leiter comes out of the spring of 2021 looking like #1 pick material, will Elias go for a pitcher at or near the top? The Orioles will not have a pick between the first and second rounds next year, so there won’t be quite as much of an opportunity to do overslot picks deeper in the draft.
How the 2021 draft order will be calculated isn’t even certain yet. The number of games expected to be played in this MLB season, assuming owner and player negotiations can reach an agreement, will probably be few enough that they won’t just take 2020 records for determining the draft order. It’s a mystery for everyone.