One familiar feeling for an Orioles fan from the bad times of a decade ago and beyond was the sense that one of the most exciting days of the season, if not the most exciting, was the first day of the draft. The team picked either third, fourth, or fifth in six straight years from 2007-2012. When you pick in the top five on draft day, you can dream that everyone is a future star. Worry about the messy reality later.
Thanks to John Means’s no-hitter at the beginning of last month (even if it feels like years ago now,) the draft isn’t going to be the most exciting day of the 2021 season for Orioles fans. It’s an easy #2, though, with the team set to pick fifth after ending the shortened 2020 season with a 25-35 record. The first day of the draft this year is set for July 11, as the draft has been moved for the first time to coincide with the All-Star break.
Most all of the games that might have changed anyone’s minds have been played by now. High school seasons are long over. Most college teams seasons have ended, except for the handful still playing for the championship. All the extra time could just result in one or more teams psyching themselves out of the obvious pick to try to do something different.
For the Orioles, picking fifth means they are going to have to react to what happens ahead of them more than any other time in the Mike Elias era. In 2019, they had the top pick, so they could decide who they liked best out of Adley Rutschman and Bobby Witt Jr. In 2020, they picked #2 and everyone knew that #1 would be Spencer Torkelson. The Orioles knew for a while they’d have their pick of all non-Tork players.
That 2020 #2 pick turned into Heston Kjerstad, who through bad luck has not played a game yet. The MLB draft is not an exercise in instant gratification even when things do work out. For me, Kjerstad’s status makes it all the more important that the O’s are able to nail their top pick this year. Hard to build up a good farm and eventually a good MLB team if you blow a high pick in consecutive years.
Over the last week or so, several draft experts have weighed in on how they see the first round of the draft playing out. I’ve rounded up four mock drafts that each have the Orioles choosing a different player. There is recurring chatter that the O’s might once again go for an underslot pick strategy, like they did with Kjerstad last year, but only one of these writers actually mocked an underslot selection for the O’s, for now. Plenty can change by the time the draft rolls around.
Kahlil Watson - SS - Wake Forest (NC) HS
According to ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel’s mock, the O’s choice in recent days would be Watson, who is one of four well-regarded high school shortstops expected to be picked within the top ten of the draft. The others of the four are Marcelo Mayer (the #1 pick in all four of this round of mocks,) Jordan Lawlar, and Brady House.
Per McDaniel’s reporting, he believes the Orioles would choose between any one of those four shortstops if they had the chance, with underslot pick possibilities being Georgia high school catcher Harry Ford and Sam Houston State outfielder Colton Cowser.
Watson is decidedly not an underslot pick. In this round of mock drafts he’s picked as high as #2. A couple of prospect evaluators consider him to be the 4th-best prospect in the draft. He slots in there on both Fangraphs and MLB Pipeline’s rankings of draft prospects. FG’s report on him says he has “the best bat speed in the entire 2021 draft class,” seeing a future second baseman with “the potential for star-level power and speed output.” Sounds pretty good!
Henry Davis - C - Louisville
The Fangraphs duo of Eric Longenhagen and Kevin Goldstein puts the Orioles down with the #2 prospect on their draft board, Davis. At least one evaluator, The Athletic’s Keith Law, rates Davis as the #1 prospect in the entire class. (Law’s last mock draft was made on May 27, so I haven’t included it here.) However, both writers note that teams behind the Orioles in the draft believe that the O’s are lining up another underslot deal.
Longenhagen just thinks Davis at #5 would represent “too strong a value to pass on,” even if the team might arrive on draft day with underslot plans. Law’s top ranking of Davis describes him as “some certainty in a draft class that offers very little of it,” writing that Davis has “power, patience, bat control, and a plus arm.”
The Orioles have already got a catcher in Rutschman, but that’s no reason not to take Davis and figure things out later. In two of these other mock drafts, Davis was already chosen before the Orioles had a chance to pick at #5.
The FG tidbit about the Orioles also includes some intelligence about where Elias has been seen scouting this spring. Which players the GM shows up to see is not a bad way to guess who he is interested in. According to Longenhagen, the players who’ve gotten Elias to go in person are House, Watson, Cowser, and Boston College outfielder Sal Frelick.
Sal Frelick - OF - Boston College
Perhaps MLB.com’s Jim Callis has heard of the same Elias sightings as Longenhagen, as his mock choice for the Orioles is Frelick. This seems like a pick that would represent the underslot strategy in action, as Frelick is ranked at #11 on MLB’s own draft prospect ranking and #9 on Fangraphs. The difference between slot value for #5 and #9 is over a million dollars.
What’s interesting about Frelick is he has a profile that’s expected to have some late development, since he played three sports in his Massachusetts high school without focusing specifically on baseball. Players from the colder Northeast are typically slower-developing to begin with, plus Frelick had a knee injury in 2019 that cost him some time.
Law, who puts Frelick as his #6 player in the class, says Frelick “looks like a future MLB leadoff hitter, with a strong eye, high contact rates, and above-average speed.” It’s a bit more concerning when the FG capsule on Frelick says “it takes some projecting ... to see him as an average regular.” That sounds risky for so high in the draft! But that also means there’s possible reward for the team that takes the risk. He clearly has his believers among the world of mainstream prospect writers. Getting the #6 player with the #5 pick is not bad value, as long as the people who think he’s the #6 player are right about it.
Jordan Lawlar - SS - Jesuit Prep (TX) HS
Earlier attempts to mock the first round of the draft have all had Lawlar gone before the Orioles pick. That’s different this time, with Lawlar available for the Orioles in three of these mocks. MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo made him the choice to the Orioles.
One wrinkle about Lawlar is that he turns 19 within days of the draft. An aspect of modern team drafting strategy - some teams, anyway - is aged-based predictive modeling. If you’re old for your high school senior class, that’s not as interesting as a player who’s young for the class.
For an Orioles example of this, look no further than 2019 second round pick Gunnar Henderson, who was only 17 years old on draft day. Henderson now looks like a shrewd pick. The Houston pick of Carlos Correa back in 2012 also had this as a factor. Correa didn’t turn 18 until the September after his draft. That was also true for famous O’s draft bust Billy Rowell, so obviously, even if a rule is good in general a team still has to correctly figure out whether will apply or not to each individual player in order to have draft success.
Being almost 19 isn’t a guarantee of failure for a prospect, but it is one of those things where you can look back in retrospect and think, “Oh, right.” The player was just more advanced than the other high school seniors he faced, and this fact more than his actual talent fooled people. On the other hand, the Royals happily chose Witt after the O’s picked Rutschman in 2019. Witt was 19. Witt is in the top 20 of most lists and ascending as he’s already hit 11 home runs in 39 Double-A games. Had the Royals decided, “Nope, too old!” they would probably now have regrets.
If Lawlar ends up falling down the board, the O’s will have to give some serious consideration to whether his age is a red flag or whether he’s in that Witt level of prospect where the extra year just means you’ve got that much more advanced of a prospect. Law sees Lawlar, his #2 prospect in the draft, as having “the best package of tools in the draft class.”
Even at Fangraphs, where Lawlar is the lowest-ranked of this bunch at #5, they write that he’s a “complete prospect ... who is the most likely to remain at shortstop of the top-of-the-draft high schoolers.” The age knock from Fangraphs is that they think Lawlar has the least chance out of the Mayer, Lawlar, Watson, House quartet to develop “impact power.” He has less room to grow.
The potential for big power seems to be something that makes Elias’s scouting heart go pitter-patter. That may have been what led Elias toward Kjerstad last year instead of the more expected pick of Vanderbilt’s Austin Martin (two homers in 36 Double-A games to date) so I wonder if he would pass on Lawlar even if he had the chance to take him.
This time last year, “everyone” knew that Vanderbilt pitcher Kumar Rocker was going to be in the mix to go first overall, so much so that my joking slogan for the 2020 season was “FUBAR for Kumar!” By the time this spring rolled around, “everyone” knew that he had been joined near the top by teammate Jack Leiter and that these two players would be the top two picks.
Now, Rocker is not picked in the top five of any one of these mock drafts while Leiter is generally thought to be headed to the Red Sox at #4. No one even really considers Rocker as a possible pick for the Orioles. Perhaps some day they will regret it, or perhaps what seems to be a “don’t use a high pick on a pitcher” strategy inherited from his days as an Astros assistant, when Mark Appel and Brady Aiken were back-to-back #1 overall busts, is the truly wise one.
Even Mayer as the “universal” #1 pick could change by the time draft day rolls around. The Orioles will need to have several different plans in place, depending on who gets chosen ahead of them. If they do go the underslot route, hopefully it starts bearing fruit a lot quicker than the 2020 pick of Kjerstad, with the extra money used later on high schoolers Coby Mayo and Carter Baumler. None of them have played a professional game yet, with only Mayo seemingly close to action.