There comes a time in every bad baseball team’s season where the idea of an unknown future seems more appealing than the well-known present. The Orioles have stumbled their way into this territory over the weeks since John Means threw his no-hitter. Now, interest is turned to the farm system, and as draft season gets going, to the players who might join the organization as the team’s top draft pick of the year.
In any previous season, heading into Memorial Day weekend is getting pretty close to the home stretch for the draft. The traditional draft day was in early June. That’s changed in 2021, with the first day of the draft now coinciding with the Sunday night that begins the All-Star Break. That’s nearly six weeks away. A lot of things can change in that time.
At the same time, a lot of baseball has been played this year for evaluators to decide who they like and don’t like. Most high school baseball seasons are over or nearly so. College teams are mostly headed towards their conference tournaments. Players on elite teams might have another month worth of games to keep making impressions on scouts. Everybody else has mostly done all they can on the diamond.
With all of the regular season information under their belts, several prominent prospect writers and outlets have put out mock drafts this week to try to make some predictions about where things stand right now.
The Orioles, with their 25-35 record in last year’s 60-game schedule, are lined up to pick at #5 in this year’s draft. This adds a significant level of complexity in trying to guess who they might pick, as there’s the variable of who the four teams before them will pick before the Orioles even get a chance to call anyone’s name. It’s not going to be like 2019, where they had their choice of anyone, or like last year, when they had their choice of anyone but Spencer Torkelson.
The picks in this draft roundup come from Baseball America, The Athletic’s Keith Law, and MLB.com’s Jim Callis. Law and Callis have put these mocks out within the last day, with BA’s coming earlier in the week.
Henry Davis - C - Louisville
One constant for the last month or more is the idea that the best college position player available in the draft is Davis. He is the Orioles pick in the latest BA mock draft. Do not get too attached to the idea of the Orioles drafting Davis for this reason: Someone else might pick him first. In the other mock drafts in this roundup, Davis is mocked by Law to the Pirates at #1 and at #4 to the Red Sox by Callis.
If you are all in on the Adley Rutschman hype train, you might wonder why the Orioles would consider drafting another college catcher just two years later. I will just point out that the Orioles had catching mega-prospect Matt Wieters after picking him in 2007, so when the next year’s draft rolled around, they did not seem to consider that year’s great catcher, Buster Posey. Posey has had the greater career by far.
The best draft strategy is to take the best player available. If there’s a surplus of prospects at a position later down the road, that would not be a bad problem for the Orioles to have.
There are questions in the scouting world as to whether Davis will be able to stick at the catching position as a professional. Some thoughts on Davis from Fangraphs’ Kevin Goldstein, who this week gave Davis 5-1 odds of being the #1 overall pick:
All-in-all, scouts’ median expectation involves him hitting .280 with walks and 20-plus bombs. That’s All-Star level production for a catcher, but not everyone is convinced Davis can stay behind the plate. His throwing arm is one of the best in this year’s class ... Beyond the cannon, Davis is a below-average defender with inconsistent footwork and hard hands, and while he has the tools to give you acceptable defense in an outfield corner, the value of the bat dissipates considerably with a slide that far down the defensive spectrum.
Davis could easily end up quashing these concerns and turning out to be a fine catcher. No one’s pre-draft scouting report is the final word on his hopes as a professional baseball player. But after watching Pedro Severino and Chance Sisco in 2021, I get a little nervous about the Orioles drafting a below-average defender catcher with the #5 pick.
Harry Ford - C - North Cobb (Georgia) HS
Ford is the Orioles pick in Law’s first mock draft of the year. This represents, in his opinion, “current wisdom that Baltimore will look to cut a deal here that saves them a substantial amount of money, probably a million or more.”
The O’s went in this direction in selecting Heston Kjerstad with the #2 overall pick last year, paying him money more in line with a #7 pick and using that extra pool money to sign two high schoolers. Kjerstad has yet to see game action and it’s unclear when he will. This is neither the team’s fault nor the player’s. “Player develops myocarditis, possibly because of the global pandemic” was not an easily foreseeable risk in making the pick. The outcome still stinks for the fate of the rebuild project.
It’s not fair to saddle Ford with that baggage any more than it was to project the ghost of Matt Hobgood into Grayson Rodriguez when the Dan Duquette-led Orioles reached, relative to conventional wisdom, to take Rodriguez at #11 in 2018. He is his own guy who will succeed or fail for his own reasons. Other baggage that might come with Ford is that, as both Law and Callis note, high school catchers are risky as a group, especially when teams talk themselves into using first round picks on those players.
Ford is Law’s #9 ranked prospect in the draft class. Taking the #9 guy at #5 is a reach, but not an egregious one, especially if the version of the player from Law’s draft prospect ranking shows up in the Orioles system:
... scouts talk about his athleticism more than anything else, which is unusual for any catching prospect, especially his plus speed. He’s also very strong, and coupled with his huge bat speed and good balance even through a big stride in the box, he looks like he’ll get to power as well.
It’s not every day you hear “plus speed” about a catcher. Callis made note of Ford running a 6.42 second 60-yard dash at a showcase. There is also a versatility comparison made to Craig Biggio, with a belief that Ford’s athleticism and tools would allow him to play second base or center field as well. This is totally irrelevant to his talent, but Harry Ford is a great baseball name.
Brady House - SS - Winder-Barrow (Georgia) HS
House is the O’s pick in Callis’s mock. He was not available to the Orioles in BA’s mock, and in Law’s, he goes at #7 to the Royals. According to Callis, Baltimore has been heavily scouting “the prep shortstops,” a group that includes House as well as likely-gone-by-5 players like Marcelo Mayer and Jordan Lawlar.
Callis does also mention the possibility of the O’s going underslot at #5, though he predicts this would involve taking a college hitter. That tier of player, presumably, would be Houston outfielder Colton Cowser, Boston College outfielder Sal Frelick, and UCLA shortstop Matt McLain. In the Pipeline ranking, these are the 10th-12th best prospects in the class. Law rates Frelick 6th and McLain 7th.
All of these writers expect House to end up at third base as a professional, because that necessary quickness will probably not remain in the sort of player who Pipeline’s report describes as “(looking) the part of a power hitter (with) well-above-average raw pop to all fields.”
Law notes that House has “the best exit velocities in this draft class” along with noting that he’s young for the class; he’ll only turn 18 next month. It does seem like Elias likes big dudes who might hit a boatload of home runs. Law writes that the big question for House is how much he will hit. He is rated as the #11 prospect in the draft class. Other rankings like House more; Pipeline puts him at #6.
House went through a rough period of showcases where he was facing top competition; Pipeline’s report describes this period as House’s power stroke getting long as he tried to sell out for power. The scouting consensus seems to be that he’s gotten back to what made him successful. Teams who think about picking him will have to decide how likely it is that House slides back into bad habits.
When this baseball season began, “everyone” knew that Vanderbilt teammates Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker were going #1 and #2 in the draft. The Orioles, it seemed, were not bad enough in 2020 to have a chance to draft them. By late May, this thought has shifted. All of these mocks still have Leiter being picked before the Orioles can draft anyone. However, Rocker is available for the Orioles in each of these mocks.
It feels like Elias arrived in Baltimore with the idea that it’s better not to use high draft picks on pitchers. Perhaps he was influenced the Houston experience with drafting Mark Appel and Brady Aiken at #1 overall in consecutive drafts.
Since joining the Orioles, Elias has overseen two drafts. In 2019, the team did not select a pitcher until the eighth round. Last year, in a five-round draft, the O’s took a pitcher with their fifth round pick, the last pick they had available. It looks like he will have the opportunity to think about whether he wants to do something different and take Rocker.
The Orioles will not be making the #5 selection until day 1 of the draft on July 11. A lot can change between now and then, but at this point there’s not a lot more game action to influence anyone’s thinking.