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Orioles select Colton Cowser with #5 pick in 2021 draft

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The Orioles have gone for an underslot strategy with their top pick for the second year in a row, tabbing Sam Houston State OF Colton Cowser.

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Colton Cowser is #17, on the right here.
Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

One year ago, the Orioles were the team that shook up the top of the draft by going against the expectation in picking Heston Kjerstad. The 2021 draft didn’t get past the #1 overall pick without a surprise, as the Pirates took Louisville catcher Henry Davis, who was believed to have interested the Orioles, with the top pick.

This set in motion a series of picks that gave the Orioles a chance to get their favorite of three of the “big four” high school shortstops from pre-draft hype: Kahlil Watson, Brady House, and Jordan Lawlar. They swerved again, however, going with Sam Houston State outfielder Colton Cowser.

Leading up to the draft, general manager Mike Elias said to The Baltimore Sun, “We feel that we should be getting an impact player with this pick, and that is our goal. I think if that doesn’t happen, we’ll feel like we failed with the pick.”

Elias and the rest of the scouting staff’s consensus idea of the best impact player in the draft was probably not Cowser. That’s the reality of picking fifth in the draft. Four other teams had a chance to take players the Orioles liked the most. Based on the pre-draft rumor mill, the O’s had interest in Vanderbilt pitcher Jack Leiter and Davis, generally thought to be the two best college players available.

The Orioles did not suck enough in 2020 to get a chance to draft either of those players. They would have had to lose six more games last year to end up with Davis. It would have taken three more losses to be able to get Leiter, picked at #2 by the Rangers, and one more loss to get the pre-draft expected #1 pick, Mayer. That guy will be haunting the O’s, if he is as good as they say, after being picked at #4 by the Red Sox.

It is the sort of thing where there’s no use crying over spilled milk. Elias and company certainly won’t be. Their task is now to turn Cowser into the best player that he can be, so that he can be part of the talent pipeline that will sustain Orioles success in the future.

Heading into the day of the draft, the expectation among the assorted mock draft makers was that the Orioles would select Watson. Keith Law’s two days early mock, as well as day-of mocks from MLB Pipeline and Fangraphs, all tabbed Watson as the O’s choice after Leiter and Davis were plucked ahead of them.

The O’s pick has turned out similar to last year, when “everyone” expected the Orioles to draft Vanderbilt’s Austin Martin, now a Blue Jays prospect after they picked him #5 in that draft. As we know, they instead went with Arkansas outfielder Heston Kjerstad, an underslot pick who they believed could exceed expectations of the industry at large. With Kjerstad contracting myocarditis and not playing a game yet, the pick has worked out poorly for the O’s to date, though that wasn’t one of the foreseeable risks in doing what they did.

The mainstream draft writers were more acutely aware of the possibility of the O’s pursuing a similar strategy in 2021, mentioning it regularly in their mock draft blurbs, though ultimately they did not predict it in their last mocks. So in that sense, Elias surprised them again.

The total amount of signing bonus pool space available to the Orioles in the draft is $11,829,300. They have the fifth-highest pool of any team. A team that exceeds its bonus pool by up to 5% pays a tax of 75% on the overage; any amount over 5% results in future draft picks forfeited. It’s not uncommon to see teams go over their pools. No team has reached the forfeit a pick level of spending since this system was implemented in 2012.

Any team’s top pick is a crucial part of how that money will be spent because that makes up a big chunk of their total pool available. In the case of the Orioles in 2021, the #5 slot value is $6,180,700, more than half of their total pool space.

By drafting Cowser, the Orioles are once again pursuing an underslot strategy. They had been rumored to be looking for a player who would sign for at least $1 million under the #5 slot value. That means that the Orioles will be allocating that money towards players with more talent than where they are picked, who will need the extra money to be signed away from college commitments. In 2020, those players were Coby Mayo and Carter Baumler.

Cowser was a bit of a polarizing player in the pre-draft rankings. At Fangraphs, Cowser is seen as the #6 prospect in the draft class, who will slot immediately into their top 100 prospect list upon signing. At MLB Pipeline, he ranked as the #10 prospect, while The Athletic’s Keith Law placed him 14th. Obviously, O’s fans will now be hoping that the Fangraphs view on Cowser is the closest to the reality that he experiences as an O’s prospect. The scouting report does have some good things in it:

Cowser has the best bat-to-ball skills in this draft. He tracks pitches with laser-guided precision, is able to make mid-flight adjustments to breaking balls, and he’s adept at hitting pitches on the outer third to the opposite field. ... he’s a plus runner capable of playing in center field.

The drawback to Cowser, and the thing that makes him a probable underslot player at the #5 pick rather than a player whose selection aligns with conventional wisdom, is that there are questions about how much power he will have as a pro prospect.

One completely irrelevant Cowser intangible is that it will be extremely fun to hear people with drunken Baltimore accents say his name. Just think about it: “Come on, Colton Cowser! Three run home run right now, hon!” That’s the good stuff. Unless he is a bust.

Speaking about the pick to Orioles media after making the pick, Elias said that Cowser is “one of the best pure hitters in the country.” He added that college performers have had a good track record over past drafts, then said, “We got our guy.” Now, let’s hope he’s right.

In another few years, we’ll find out how much (hopefully not at all) the O’s regret not going for any of House, Lawlar, or Watson when they had the chance.

We won’t find out who the later overslot players will be tonight, as the Orioles do not have another pick to make on day 1 of the draft, which is running through pick 36. They will have overnight and tomorrow morning to focus on who they want to target with their early day 2 picks. The next O’s pick is 41st overall.

Day 2 of the draft gets under way at 1pm on Monday and will proceed much faster than day 1, with only a minute between picks as the teams go through rounds 2-10. The draft concludes on Tuesday at noon as teams blaze through rounds 11-20 with no time between picks. These will be streamed online for the dedicated enthusiast.