The daily routine of sitting down to watch your favorite baseball team is not often a fun one for fans of the Orioles in 2021. Some day down the road, this will not be the case any more. When that some day will arrive may depend on when (or, gulp, if) some of the prospects drafted or acquired in the last couple of years of Dan Duquette’s tenure start to pan out.
It’s now been four years since the 2017 MLB draft. Especially when you consider the pandemic disruption to the 2020 minor league season, there’s still time for high school players from that draft class to develop. For players who were from the college ranks and drafted at age 21, they are 25 now.
While there are always late-blooming exceptions to be found, at this point players from that college group are pretty close to what they are going to be. A recent article in The Athletic about when drafted players debu concluded, “If a college player hasn’t debuted within three years of his draft date, the odds of him becoming even a solid regular are pretty slim, and the odds of him becoming a star are close to nil.” Again, to be determined if the pandemic creates exceptions to this rule. The O’s will certainly be hoping this is the case for a couple of the players from this draft class.
An unusual characteristic about the O’s 2017 is that the team effectively gave up trying to draft prospects after the fifth round, as their picks in rounds 6-10 were all “senior sign” players - that is, players receiving bonuses of $5,000-$10,000. It’s typical for a team to do a couple of senior signs each draft. The 2018 Orioles and 2019 Orioles did two apiece in the top ten rounds.
The Orioles used the money saved to go a bit over the slot value for their top two picks, unrelated Halls DL and Adam. The draft also had the oddity of the O’s fourth round pick, Jack Conlon, not being signed due to a failed physical. Conlon became a free agent and tried to sign with the Giants, where he also failed a physical. He has not pitched since a handful of games in the amateur Cape Cod League in the summer of 2019.
Since the Orioles were a good team in 2016, their top pick in the 2017 draft did not come around until #21 overall. Going back to the inception of the June draft in 1965, there have been six players drafted and signed at #21 who achieved at least 10 career bWAR. It’s a spot where you’re more likely to find a roleplayer than a star. The median outcome is a worse career than Larry Bigbie, drafted #21 by the O’s in 1999.
Where Hall, the O’s choice out of Valdosta High School in Georgia, will land for his overall MLB career is to be determined. At this exact moment, he’s looking pretty good for a late first round pick, as Hall has moved his way up into the middle of top 100 prospect rankings, including a current #53 ranking in the game at MLB Pipeline.
This was a good value pick. Hall was ranked as high as the #8 prospect in the draft class by Keith Law, and #14 by Pipeline. Taking that player and finding a way to sign him at #21 was a success for Duquette’s people. Now we can hope that the Mike Elias era of the Orioles gets the most out of Hall.
Hall is currently on the Double-A Bowie injured list with elbow inflammation. That puts a bit of a damper on the fun of his success early on this year. You just don’t want to hear about elbow problems for a pitching prospect. We’ll see how things go when he comes back. Over seven starts, Hall was racking up an amazing strikeout rate, striking out about 44% of all batters faced in 2021.
Along with the walks come the strikeouts. Command has been a persistent issue for Hall. In his last full season as a pro with then-High-A Frederick in 2019, Hall walked 54 batters in 80.2 innings, which is a Tanner Scott-like BB/9 of 6.0. Through 31.2 innings this year, he’s walked 16, or about a 4.5 BB/9. It’s more than you want to see from a starting pitcher and contributes to their being some relief risk in Hall’s future. There are more Dillon Tate outcomes than Zack Britton outcomes in the “convert this failed starter to a reliever” category.
In contrast to DL Hall, Adam Hall was more of a reach pick. That same Pipeline pre-draft ranking slotted the Bermuda-born, Canada-polished high school infielder as the #115 player in the draft class. The Orioles chose him at #60 and gave him about $250,000 above the slot value for the pick. This was not an unprecedented move in the Duquette arsenal. In 2015, the O’s second pick in the draft was Ryan Mountcastle, chosen at #36 and ranked #110 on that year’s Pipeline pre-draft ranking.
The Athletic’s Law has long been an Adam Hall fan. He rated as the #6 prospect in Law’s ranking of the Orioles system before this season, ahead even of the rest of the prospect world’s sleeper favorite, Gunnar Henderson. Law’s thoughts on Hall from February:
Adam Hall was my sleeper for the organization last year, but as a native Canadian, he wasn’t able to come to the U.S. until instructional league, by which point he hadn’t faced live pitching in nearly a year and looked rusty. Before the pandemic, at least, he was a 70 runner with improving plate discipline and the arm and actions to be an average shortstop or above-average-to-plus second baseman.
I was also interested in Hall after he posted a .298/.385/.395 batting line for Low-A Delmarva in 2019. This has not carried into the next level for 2021, as Hall is hitting just .223/.307/.291 for High-A Aberdeen. Perhaps that’s a sign of the rustiness noted by Law. Hall’s still just 22, so there’s time to turn the ship back around, but it would be a lot more exciting if he’d been one of the players who dominated his initial 2021 level and already earned a promotion.
The first college player chosen by the Orioles, Lowther was picked with a competitive balance pick between rounds 2 and 3. The Duquette-era Orioles regularly crapped away these tradeable picks in salary dump moves, so just keeping the pick and taking a player was notable. The Orioles picked Lowther from Xavier University.
For anyone following the low levels of the O’s minors after that year’s draft, Lowther’s debut performance was impressive. In 12 games for then-short season Aberdeen, Lowther struck out 75 batters in 54.1 innings and issued just 11 walks. That gets your attention!
In 2018, which he split between Low-A and High-A, the strikeout rate shrunk slightly and the walk rate increased, and by 2019 in Double-A Bowie, Lowther had a 9.4 K/9 and 3.4 BB/9. A big league pitcher can live with those numbers, but the trend was a concerning one.
Here we are in 2021 and Lowther has walked 13 batters in 24.1 innings at Triple-A. His three big league outings saw him give up nine runs in 5.1 innings. If you allowed some optimism to creep into your outlook before this season and believed that the O’s high minor tier of pitchers with Lowther among them would start building the next good O’s rotation immediately, well... it sure hasn’t worked out that way.
At Fangraphs, where Lowther was the #18 prospect in the system before the season began, Lowther’s future is predicted as a swingman type:
He doesn’t throw very hard, but it takes hitters a few looks to get comfortable with Lowther, whose mechanical funk disrupts their timing. The sinking and tailing action on his heater makes it tough to square up, and the southpaw leans on his secondary stuff to finish hitters. His curveball has depth and it bites hard, but doesn’t pair very well with the sinker and is best deployed as a means to get ahead of hitters early in the count. The changeup, which has weird, floating/tailing action but almost no sink, has become Lowther’s out pitch.
The Orioles drafted Austin Hays from Jacksonville University in the third round of the 2016 draft, and in 2017 they went right back to Jacksonville for the third round pick of Baumann. He made his big move as a prospect in the 2019 season after being promoted from High-A to Double-A, then posting a 0.943 WHIP and 2.31 ERA in 13 games for Bowie after that promotion. It was enough for FG’s Eric Longenhagen to adjust his projection of Baumann from reliever to starter, noting his off-speed pitches had improved significantly.
That version of Baumann has not been evident in 2021. Though he was active with other pitching prospects at the alternate training site last year, Baumann was shut down early due to an elbow issue. The Orioles still added him to the 40-man roster this past offseason, protecting him from the Rule 5 draft on the basis of his potential.
Baumann did not pitch in a big league spring training game and made a couple of Low-A Delmarva starts before being assigned to Bowie, the same level he finished 2019. The results over six starts have been poor, with Baumann racking up an 8.64 ERA while walking 14 batters in 16.2 innings. What’s more, Baumann has given up five home runs already; in 2019, he allowed four home runs in 124 innings over the whole season.
Is he not recovered from the injury? Is he rusty after the layoff? Is this just a prospect bumping into the ceiling of his talent? Whatever it is, he, too, seems unlikely to be any help to the 2021 Orioles rotation, with work to be done to get back into that picture at all.
The Orioles chose another high school player in the fifth round of the draft. Outfielder Lamar Sparks has battled a variety of injuries and only reached Low-A Delmarva this year. An easy guy to root for, but anyone taking that long just to reach Low-A is an automatic longshot without even looking at whatever talent they do or don’t have.
One of the senior signs, sixth round pick Mason McCoy, has been hanging around the fringes of the infield conversation - especially as long as there are crummy stopgaps at the MLB level. However, he’s going to need to hit more than a .649 OPS at Norfolk to get in to the utility infielder picture, no matter how much Orioles infielders are disappointing at the plate.
A 26th round pick, Cameron Bishop, also received some of the Orioles overslot money in this draft. The O’s signed him for a reported bonus of $605,000. All picks after the 10th round can be signed for up to $125,000 with nothing counting against the bonus pool. So that’s nearly half a million dollars overslot. Bishop has slowly ascended the minors, reaching Bowie this year, where he has a 2.41 ERA and 1.089 WHIP in 37.1 innings this year. A lefty is always worth another chance.
Even farther down than Bishop in the draft is 28th round pick Zach Jarrett, scion of a NASCAR family. Jarrett is 26 years old, so it probably doesn’t mean much that he’s hit .276/.394/.483 in 26 games for Norfolk, but after the Orioles gave up on late-blooming outfielder Mike Yastrzemski too soon, I hope they are careful not to repeat the mistake.
The Orioles used their 16th and 17th round picks on a couple of speculative tough sign high schoolers. Lefty pitcher Logan Allen was redrafted by Cleveland in the second round last year. He has struck out 58 batters in 45.1 innings for Cleveland’s High-A affiliate this season. Shortstop Greg Jones was drafted in 2019’s first round by the Rays. He’s hitting .254/.368/.526 for the Rays High-A affiliate so far in 2021.
Not much point in lamenting missing out on players like this. There are stories of essentially unsignable high school players whose bonus demand exceeds what any team will pay for them at that time every year. Some of them go on to get good bonuses out of college, like Allen and Jones, and others do not. The Orioles almost certainly couldn’t have landed DL Hall in addition to one of these players.