The Orioles starting rotation has been largely a desolate wasteland for a number of years now, even going back into the 2016 season when the team had some success overall. If that’s ever going to change, it’s probably going to have to come from pitchers who the Orioles either drafted or signed as amateurs.
In the draft last June, Mike Elias’s first as Orioles general manager, the team did not select a pitcher until the eighth round. The O’s surely added some talent to the system when they drafted Adley Rutschman at #1 overall, and hopefully they found some future worthwhile prospects with some of the up the middle players they drafted afterwards. If any rotation help is coming from that class it’s going to have to bubble up from a much later round unexpectedly.
Neither the current state of the rotation nor what happens last year are likely to have much impact on Elias’s draft room decisionmaking. Any successful draft strategy generally starts and ends with “best player available.” If that’s a position player, like Vanderbilt’s Austin Martin, who I previewed yesterday, then that’s who it is. If they like a pitcher better, then they should take the pitcher.
For the mainstream prospect writing crowd, the best pitcher in the 2020 draft is Texas A&M lefty Asa Lacy. He is the #3 prospect in the draft at most outlets, including MLB Pipeline and ESPN, and at Fangraphs he even edges out Martin - everywhere else’s #2 prospect - for the #2 spot. If he turns out to be as good as they all think, he would be an exciting arm to add to the system and hope to see in Baltimore in the future. The latest Fangraphs mock has the Orioles taking Lacy with their pick.
The reason he’s the top-rated pitcher is his mid-90s heater and upper-80s slider that are 65-grade pitches on the 20-80 scale for some scouts. His curveball is a solidly above-average pitch, while his changeup is a 60-grade pitch at its best; being precise with location isn’t required when your stuff is that lively.
The four pitch mix is an important one for starting pitchers to be able to keep hitters off balance multiple times through the order. This does not exist just because draft writers say so, of course. Brian Matusz comes to mind as top five Orioles picks of college pitchers who was praised for a four pitch mix. He was a failure as a big league starter. Whether the failure was of talent evaluation or player development is something we can all argue until we’re blue in the face.
Even at Fangraphs, where Lacy is rated ahead of Martin, you can’t help but notice the risks:
Lacy presents scouts with a non-traditional mechanical look which makes his delivery look pretty violent about his head and shoulder, even though he has less of a head whack now than he did in high school and as an underclassman.
The phrase “non-traditional mechanical look” is one of those that everyone will look back on, if things never quite work out with Lacy, to say, “Oh, well, of course that was going to happen.”
You can see some of those non-traditional mechanics in action in this scouting video from the 20-80 Baseball website from last June:
When that report mentions a “head whack,” you can see that in action somewhat - as far as I understand it - in the way that Lacy has pitches where he finishes with his head pointed towards the ground. He doesn’t do it on every pitch, and the report does say it’s less pronounced than when he was an underclassmen, so perhaps it’s something he’s improved during his time at A&M.
Losing sight of the catcher during the delivery is the kind of thing that explains why he also needs to work on command and control, as noted in another scouting capsule with MLB Pipeline:
Lacy’s biggest need is to improve his command and control. There’s some effort in his three-quarters delivery and he’s still learning to harness his overpowering stuff, so he can’t always locate his pitches where he wants.
Over the last decade, Orioles fans have been conditioned to expect that if there is some kind of pitching development task to be done with a prospect, the team will probably fail it.
This was the example set with “the cavalry” in the Andy MacPhail days, where the team was never really able to make either part of his “grow the arms, buy the bats” philosophy work, and it didn’t get any better when Dan Duquette was in charge. It might have even gotten worse. It’s clear that things are different under Elias and company, though it hasn’t been long enough for that to result in big league success that will banish the old worries.
It’s not like failing to develop top five pick pitchers is a problem unique to the Orioles. Two current O’s, Dillon Tate and Kohl Stewart, were #4 overall picks who have mostly been busts up to this point.
Tate was the first pitcher drafted in 2015, while in Stewart’s 2013 draft class, the actual first pitcher taken was #1 overall pick Mark Appel, drafted by the Astros when Elias was still with that team. Appel’s name is now only mentioned on the small list of top overall picks to never make it to MLB at all. And as far as Tate, he might not even be one of the eight best relief options in a bullpen that was among the worst in baseball last year.
I’ve been reading draft scouting reports for long enough to tell you that if you look closely at any player, even players in the top five or top three pick mix, you’re going to find something that sounds risky. A scouting department that is going to make good decisions can’t ignore risks, but they can’t be scared of risks either. There is still the luck element to the draft no matter how many good decisions a front office makes.
“Non-traditional mechanical look” could really just mean Lacy is going to succeed in a way that doesn’t look like most other MLB pitchers and that the team that tabs him with its high 2020 draft pick will reap the rewards.
One historical note about the name Asa. The titular American cousin of the play Our American Cousin was named Asa. This play’s most famous performance came at Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC on April 14, 1865, with President Abraham Lincoln in attendance. The character of Asa spoke the now-infamous line (“you sockdologizing man-trap”) that prompted the laughter that John Wilkes Booth used as cover to enter the presidential box and shoot Lincoln.
On second thought, maybe it’s better to just point out that the name “Asa” has the syllable “ace” right there in it. If he turns into a great pitcher, that was clearly fate. And maybe next Wednesday, the Orioles will decide they want to take a chance on that fate.