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Two years after being picked, the Orioles 2019 draft class can finally show their stuff

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Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson leave Orioles fans with plenty to be excited about from the 2019 draft class.

2021 Baltimore Orioles Photo Day
This Rutschman guy seems like he might be pretty good.
Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Not much goes under the “pro” column for when your favorite baseball team is the worst team in all of MLB. One of the only things on that list, if not the only thing, is getting to have the #1 pick in the following year’s draft. That was the real silver lining of the last Dan Duquette/Buck Showalter-helmed Orioles season. They were so bad that the new people could come in and get the top pick.

There are years where getting the obvious, slam dunk #1 pick works out for the team picking at the top of the draft. From 2000-2012, eight players drafted at #1 overall have accumulated a career bWAR of 30 or better (it’s seven and Gerrit Cole is at 29.8). There are a couple of relative busts in there, former Orioles Delmon Young and Tim Beckham among them.

Then there’s the 2013 and 2014 #1 picks, where Mike Elias was an assistant GM with the Astros and they selected Mark Appel and Brady Aiken in back-to-back years. Appel never made it to MLB. Aiken didn’t even sign with Houston after a post-draft physical revealed a problem. It is remarkable that the Astros could accomplish what they did with rebuilding even as two of their three #1 overall picks amounted to nothing. It helped that the compensation pick at #2 in the 2015 draft for not signing Aiken turned into Alex Bregman.

The players in the Orioles 2019 draft class, like every other team’s 2019 draft class, have not had the usual opportunity to show off what they can or can’t do. These players had a couple of months after signing in 2019 and what would have been their first full seasons in 2020 never happened. A couple were able to get in work at the alternate training site. Everyone else was on his own. This year is the first year they have a chance to develop in a typical minor league season.

Adley Rutschman

Last year’s experience with drafting Heston Kjerstad has got fans and draft experts anticipating another Mike Elias draft swerve, but the fact is that in his first draft he had a slam dunk #1 prospect available and that’s exactly who he took.

“Everyone” knew that Rutschman, then an Oregon State catcher, was the #1 caliber talent. “Everyone” knew this as far back as when the previous year’s draft took place, with Rutschman ahead of Bobby Witt Jr., who “everyone” knew was #2 for just about as long, and that’s what Elias thought too. The Orioles paid Rutschman what was then a record signing bonus of $8.1 million.

Nothing has come along yet to take any of the shine off of Rutschman as a prospect. If anything, he’s only accelerated his upward trajectory. Now that Tampa Bay has brought Wander Franco up to the MLB level, Rutschman is the #1 prospect in the game who’s still in the minor leagues.

The competition in Double-A, where Rutschman was assigned to start this season, is certainly treating Rutschman like a top prospect. They won’t stop walking the guy. He entered Wednesday having drawn 40 walks in 2021, with only 35 strikeouts. Despite their dogged efforts to not pitch to Rutschman, he’s still hit 11 home runs in 47 games. He has thrown out 33% of would-be base-stealers for the season.

Orioles fans who’ve been around the block a couple of times no doubt recall the last time there was a switch-hitting catcher who was supposed to be both a phenomenal hitter and defender. Matt Wieters was a fine Oriole who never remotely lived up to the hype that surrounded him. That worry will probably still tickle the back of your mind until Rutschman shows up in Baltimore to forge a different path. Until then, there are incredibly exciting scouting reports to read like this one from Eric Longenhagen at Fangraphs:

Rutschman is the total package, a physical monster who also has superlative baseball acumen and leadership qualities. ... It’s rare for ambidextrous swingers to have polished swings from both sides of the plate, and even more so to have two nearly identical, rhythmic swings that produce power. ... Rutschman has the physical tools to become the best catcher in baseball ... He’s also an ultra-competitive, attentive, and vocal team leader who shepherds pitchers with measured but intense encouragement.

I’m ready to be hurt again, you know? But hopefully this one is The One and I don’t have to be hurt again. I’m looking forward to when he ascends to Norfolk and eventually Baltimore. The big league call-up will probably be waiting until after next season begins.

Gunnar Henderson

After the Orioles chose Henderson from an Alabama high school with the first pick in the second round of the draft, they were not shy about giving him the top pick treatment, with an introductory press conference at Oriole Park at Camden Yards shortly after his signing became official. On the day he was drafted, he was still just 17 years old. He turned 20 earlier this week.

This was also a very by-the-book pick by the Orioles. Henderson was seen as roughly an early second round talent - some lists even considered him a late first round talent - and they evaluated the players in that tier, picked one they liked, and signed him for almost exactly slot value for the pick. Two years later, their scouting insight on Henderson looks like it was correct.

Henderson didn’t have the same hype as Rutschman, but he’s continued improving his stock since being drafted as well. The team came out of last year’s alternate training site arrangement talking up how well Henderson had done while facing off against pitchers much more advanced than he would have seen if he’d been assigned to Delmarva last year.

Most prospect writers had him considered as a likely player to grow into top 100 prospect lists next year, and after Henderson hit .312/.369/.574 upon being unleashed upon Low-A pitchers, he’s already popped up on lists that have updated since the season began. His scouting report on MLB Pipeline, where he’s now the #91 prospect in the game, is also good for generating excitement about the future of the Orioles:

A physical left-handed hitter, Henderson produces good bat speed from his projectable 6-foot-3 frame, which has elicited comparisons to Corey Seager. The power upside is big, potentially plus at the highest level. He also has a plus arm, good speed for his size and strong instincts on the bases, to go along with strong makeup and work ethic.

It does still seem to be unclear at what position on the diamond Henderson will eventually settle. He’s been splitting time between shortstop and third base in 2021, though that’s as much because of the plethora of other Orioles infield prospects as anything.

Kyle Stowers

The Orioles picked three players from the Stanford baseball team in their first eleven rounds, starting with Stowers in the CBB round. Teammates Maverick Handley, potentially Rutschman’s future backup, and Andrew Daschbach rounded out the trio.

Stowers, an outfielder, had over a .400 OBP and seven home runs in 36 games for High-A Aberdeen before being promoted to Double-A Bowie this year. After a week, he’s still looking to find his feet there. Stowers is something of a polarizing prospect among the mainstream writers. Fangraphs rated him at #13 in the system before the season; The Athletic’s Keith Law’s list of top 20 Orioles prospects plus five honorable mentions has no trace of Stowers at all.

The Stowers downside is that he strikes out a lot. That’s played out through 2021 so far, with strikeouts in 34.6% of his plate appearances. Only one MLB hitter who qualifies for the batting title exceeds that strikeout rate. That’s Javier Baez, who is hitting .226/.271/.471. The 18 dingers are nice. I would not bet on Stowers cutting a path to MLB when already striking out that much, though. Baez, for example, struck out about 23% of the time in High-A.

Other prospects

One thing about a draft class that’s only playing its first full season two years after the draft is there are a number of players where you can squint and imagine there might be something. Probably most of them won’t be. Everybody’s a longshot that far down the draft board. But sometimes a team is lucky or good and several of its longshots find their way to big league roles.

Fourth rounder Joey Ortiz also earned an Aberdeen-to-Bowie promotion since the season began, though he’s now on Bowie’s injured list. Fifth rounder Darell Hernaiz is playing as a 19-year-old at Low-A, split between second base and shortstop.

Farther down still, 16th round pick Shelton Perkins, a product of James Madison University, has pitched his way from Delmarva’s bullpen to Aberdeen’s bullpen in 2021. And then there’s 21st rounder Toby Welk, from Division III school Penn State Berks, who signed for $1,000, then slugged .500 for then-short-season Aberdeen after being drafted.

Welk, who’s related to TV music man Lawrence in my mind if not reality, is another guy to get an Aberdeen-to-Bowie promotion this season. He has three homers in seven games at Bowie. Again, he is probably not going to turn into anything, but for now he’s a fun story and I like to mention him as often as he’s worth at least a little mention.

In another year, maybe a couple more guys from the draft class will bubble up. That would be a lucky outcome for the Orioles, though. More likely the flaws that led these players to not be first round picks will manifest more and more in the pro ranks and progress will stall as they are supplanted by subsequent years draft picks or trade acquisitions.