The first round of the 2020 MLB draft is now five days away. The Orioles, holders of the #2 pick, will not be on the clock until then, though if the universal assumption that the Tigers will select Arizona State first baseman Spencer Torkelson at #1 holds up, the O’s “know” that they need to focus their decisionmaking on who they like the best out of everyone else.
A general opinion among mainstream baseball prospect writers is that the next best player available is Vanderbilt’s Austin Martin, who in most mock drafts is going to the Orioles with the #2 pick. However, there’s still some uncertainty about that, with some publications this week suggesting the Orioles are strongly considering doing something else.
That includes Baseball America, which published a mock this week where the Orioles tab Florida high school outfielder Zac Veen at #2. Veen is generally the top high school player on draft prospect rankings for 2020, ranging from #5 in the Fangraphs ranking to #7 in the MLB Pipeline ranking, and he’s been the first high schooler off the board in every mock I’ve looked at so far.
This would be a bit of a surprise compared to expectations. If the Orioles do end up deciding to choose Veen at #2, part of the motivation would likely be that they believe they could sign him for less than the slot value of the #2 pick, which is $7,789,900. Since Veen could end up sliding as far down as #8 (in the latest Fangraphs mock), he might be interested in taking, say, #5 slot money ($6,180,700) at #2 instead of potentially having to settle for $5,176,900 at #8.
The Orioles would then be able to use the $1.1 million to pick a more talented player with a higher bonus demand with their #30 selection. In a recent conversation with MASN’s Steve Melewski, Baseball America’s J.J. Cooper offered one possible overslot name as Texas high school righty Jared Kelley, the publication’s #12 prospect.
Getting the #12 guy at #30 would indeed be nice, but is it worth it to pass up the chance to get the #2 guy at #2 just to make that happen?
Some of that depends on Veen and how good he can really be. Like most high-ranked prospects, scouting capsules talking up his strengths make him sound like a guy who most people would like to get on the Orioles pronto. Here’s Fangraphs on Veen:
Of the high school hitters in this draft with big, projectable, athletic frames, Veen has the best present feel to hit. His in-the-box actions are quiet and smooth up until the moment he decides to unleash hell on the baseball. He can clear his hips and crush balls in and he can also extends his arms and crush pitches away from him to the opposite field gap.
O’s fans have become accustomed in recent years to having it be the other team who unleashes hell on the baseball when they get to face crappy Orioles pitching. The Orioles themselves finding another guy capable of doing that would be exciting.
It’s not only Fangraphs that can make you get a little pumped about Veen’s potential. ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel:
Veen is a lanky, smooth, 6-foot-4, above-average runner who fits in center field for now and has a chance to be a plus hitter with plus plate discipline and plus power. He likely will fill out and move to a corner, but he might have 70-grade power at that point.
There’s some scouting jargon in here that you might not be familiar with. “Plus” and “70-grade power” mean specific things. When McDaniel was still with Fangraphs in 2014, he wrote a primer on his uses of these scouting terms. A plus hitter probably has a .280 average. If he adds plus plate discipline to that, even better. And 70 power means 30-35 home runs year in and year out.
If Veen ended up being a plus hitter with plus plate discipline and 70 power, that would end up looking something like the 2019 production of Trey Mancini - .291/.364/.535 - except this optimistic version of Veen would do that every year, and he’s a lefty batter, so he’d be bombing balls onto the flag court or Eutaw Street at Camden Yards, plus he’s actually got the speed, instincts, and arm strength to play right field.
You want that guy on your favorite baseball team! Assuming, of course, that he ends up existing. The other key word in McDaniel’s scouting capsule is “chance.” The figurative baseball prospect graveyard is full of guys who had a chance to improve their tools and reach some projected level of performance but were never quite able to do it.
There are those busted draft picks where you can only look back and think, “What idiot thought that would be a good idea?” Quite often they are hiding among even the consensus top 10 picks in any given draft class; sometimes even every scout and prospect writer’s idea of the #1 player is a bust or disappointment.
If Mike Elias sees in Veen’s current abilities and potential a guy who, three years down the road, could be even better than a lot of these college players he might consider taking are right now, that would certainly be a good reason to draft Veen on its own, without even getting into whether that affords the Orioles the chance to get a mid-first round talent at the end of the first round.
Among the several things about this draft that will make it tough for teams is that most teams had little, if any, action before COVID-19’s spread shut everything down. For high school players this is even more likely to be true than college players.
It may be that if Veen had a full schedule this spring he’d have vaulted his way into the conversation for one of the top three picks without being thought of as more of an under slot guy. Or he could have gotten hurt, or not played as well, and he’d be ranked below other high school players.
There’s always going to be a risk taking any player, it’s just that sometimes those risks seem even greater for high school players because there’s so much more variance. If you ignore all high school players forever, you’ll miss out on good ones in certain years.
Imagine if the Orioles refused to take a high school player when they selected Manny Machado. That is an awful alternate universe. But there aren’t many high school players out there whose best case scenario - let alone a more realistic middle outcome - is anything close to Machado.
Here is a little hype video about Veen, which probably has little predictive value about his future pro success but you may find interesting anyway:
It all comes down to what Elias thinks about this draft class. It’s not going to be an easy decision, but that’s why he gets the big bucks. If his choice turns out to be Veen, we can only hope that works out as well as when the Astros, with Elias in the draft room, “reached” to draft Carlos Correa as an under slot signing and looked like geniuses.