As the dust settled on the MLB First-Year Player Draft in mid-July, the Orioles had two brand-new college bats selected with their first two picks: OF Colton Cowser (Sam Houston State), selected No. 5 overall, and 2B Connor Norby (East Carolina), No. 41 overall.
From the Cowser/Norby selections, a few things about this team became clear:
- The O’s prefer the lower-risk investment of college bats (they picked 20 college athletes to just one high schooler in 2021),
- They don’t care about hype, passing on some of the biggest names in the draft — the trio of high school shortstops Jordan Lawlar (who went to Arizona with the 6th pick overall), Brady House (Nationals, 11th), and Kahlil Watson (Miami, 16th) — before landing on Cowser.
- The underslot approach continues to be a favorite strategy, with Cowser signing for $4.9 million, about $1.3 million under the slot value, the second year in a row the Orioles went underslot with their top pick. That said, they will overpay for the right player down the ranks: third-round OF John Rhodes (Kentucky) and eighth-rounder and Kenny Powers lookalike Creed Willems, a catcher out of Aledo Texas High, signed at $500,000 and $800,000 above slot, respectively.
The Orioles weren’t coy about their preference for proven, contact-happy college hitters whom they could get at a decent value. As GM Mike Elias said, post-draft: “We have all types of data and we study the heck out of the draft. These elite college performers are surprisingly good when you look back at past drafts and you are amazed they didn’t go higher sometimes. That has continued to be a lesson year after year, and we are very mindful of that.”
So who were these veteran hitters selected by Baltimore, and how did they fare in their first year with the team?
As a junior at Sam Houston State, Cowser hit .374/.490/.680 with 16 home runs, 10 doubles, two triples, 61 runs, 52 RBI, and 42 walks in 55 games. He became just the second player in program history to be named Southland Conference (SLC) Player of the Year after leading the SLC in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, runs, hits, RBI, and home runs.
Said Mike Elias after the pick: “We are very pleased to have selected Colton with our first-round draft pick this year. He has been and is one of the best pure hitters in the country since setting foot on campus at Sam Houston. This year he put up a superlative line for them, showing power, hitting for average, speed, and defense. He’s a five-tool player and he’s somebody we suspect to impact our team and our lineup on both sides of the ball, both offensively and defensively. I think it is rare to get all five of those tools in a college performer like we did, that’s why we took him. We got our guy, I’m very pleased about that.”
So far, Cowser is making Elias & Co. look smart, indeed, with a .375 average and .982 OPS across two levels in his first professional season. First assigned to the Rookie-level Florida Complex League, Cowser raked, racking up 11 hits (four for extra bases) in just seven games. Then, on August 17, he and 11 other 2021 draft picks were assigned to the offensively anemic Delmarva Shorebirds, and things got fun.
Delmarva went 20-10 in its last 30 games with the new crew, averaging 7.5 runs per game during that stretch en route to breaking its own season record with 720 runs scored. Cowser, says MASN’s Steve Melewski, “emerged as someone with star potential” at Delmarva, hitting .347 in 25 games with 26 RBI and 19 walks. He only homered once there, but a .904 OPS isn’t exactly cause for concern. After the season ended, Orioles director of player development Matt Blood had this giddy feedback to give:
“This guy is phenomenal. He is a big, strong, athletic kid with his head on straight. Very smart, very personable, hard worker and can hit. He can really hit. And he knows the strike zone, he uses the whole field and he’s got legit power and can play in the outfield, center field. So, this guy is the complete package, and honestly, the fact that we got him at No. 5 to me feels like a steal. This guy was our favorite guy in the draft, and he’s already shown kind of what he is and I have a lot of faith in this guy.”
Blood also added that Cowser could move up quickly on the O’s farm given his great sense of the strike zone and his good defense.
The most notable pick on the O’s second day of the draft, Conner Norby led the nation in hits with 102 in 61 games during his junior season in 2021, slashing .415/.484/.659 on the way to winning American Athletic Conference (AAC) Player of the Year honors. Fangraphs ranked Norby the No. 25 overall pick, Baseball America had him at No. 43 overall and MLB.com had him at 58th. After the pick, Brad Ciolek, the Orioles’ supervisor of domestic scouting, enthused: “Norby has tremendous feel for the barrel and has the ability to adjust well. It’s a lightning-fast bat and he’s shown he can hit elite stuff. We really like what we are getting here in terms of the offensive potential.”
Norby started slow, hitting just .182 in seven games in the FCL. But soon after joining Delmarva alongside Cowser & Co., Norby’s offense took off. He finished 2021 with a .283 average, an impressive .413 OBP, and a solid .847 OPS. He homered three times and had 17 RBI in 26 games.
It’s not a ton to go on, but it’s encouraging. We’ll know more about Cowser and Norby’s progress this offseason as both have been assigned to the Orioles’ fall instructional camp in Sarasota. Hopefully the two can sustain the momentum they built this fall. If so, expect to see the pair at Double-A Bowie by the beginning or the end of 2022.
Previous 2021 Orioles prospect reviews: Ryan McKenna, Alexander Wells, Brnovich/Peek/Pinto, Diaz/Bannon, Tyler Nevin, Vavra/Ortiz/Servideo, Zac Lowther, DL Hall/Rom, Hernandez/Basallo, Jahmai Jones, Hudson Haskin, Bradish/Smith, Hernaiz/Mayo
Monday: Adam Hall