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After first 10 rounds of Orioles’ draft, it’s all about the college hitters

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Halfway through the 2021 MLB draft, it’s not hard to figure out Mike Elias’ preferred targets.

2020 Grape Fruit League Media Availability Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Say this for Mike Elias and the Orioles: they’ve got a preferred draft strategy, and they’re sticking with it.

The O’s completed the first 10 rounds of the draft yesterday, and see if you can spot a pattern in their picks:

  • Round 1 (#5 overall): Colton Cowser, OF, Sam Houston State
  • Round 2 (#41): Connor Norby, IF, East Carolina
  • Competitive Balance Round B (#65): Reed Trimble, OF, Southern Mississippi
  • Round 3 (#76): John Rhodes, OF, Kentucky
  • Round 4 (#106): Donta’ Williams, OF, Arizona
  • Round 5 (#137): Carlos Tavera, RHP, Texas Arlington
  • Round 6 (#167): Collin Burns, IF, Tulane
  • Round 7 (#197): Connor Pavolony, C, Tennessee
  • Round 8 (#227): Creed Willems, C, Aledo HS (Tex.)
  • Round 9 (#257): Ryan Higgins, IF, Fresno State
  • Round 10 (#287): Billy Cook, OF, Pepperdine

It’s a lot of guys whose first names begin with C, for one thing. But more to the point, nine of the 11 players are college position players. Just one pitcher and one prep player made their way into the mix.

It shouldn’t be a surprise. The previous two Orioles drafts under the Elias regime made it clear where their preferences lie. In 2019, the O’s selected six college hitters before drafting their first pitcher, including top overall pick Adley Rutschman and four of their top five picks. In the abbreviated five-round draft in 2020, the Orioles used their first four picks on college hitters — again, including their top one, Heston Kjerstad — before high schoolers Coby Mayo and Carter Baumler rounded out the draft.

Yesterday, Orioles amateur scouting director Brad Ciolek told reporters, “There is a lot of data and analytical insight with the college bat demographic that we feel comfortable with. So we went ahead to target those guys early and often.”

The Orioles’ second round selection, Norby, may be the most intriguing of the bunch. Both FanGraphs and The Athletic’s Keith Law had the 21-year-old ranked 25th on their draft prospects lists, so landing him in the second round was a savvy move. Both sources applaud Norby’s polished at-bats against Vanderbilt aces Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker in the super regionals, with FanGraphs praising his “pro-level approach, a feel to hit and enough sneaky pop to be dangerous.” Law adds that Norby “has a compact swing and uses the whole field well, with wrist strength to drive the ball the other way.”

Unlike many of Elias’s high draft picks, who have been shortstops, center fielders, or catchers, Norby doesn’t play a premium position. He’s a second baseman by trade and figures to remain at that position. His bat will need to pan out to make him a worthwhile pick, but there’s reason to believe it will.

After the Norby selection, Elias and his team strayed from most of the pundits’ preferred prospects. Their #65 selection, Trimble, received very different reviews depending on the source. He was not ranked in Law’s top 101 and was a distant 148th on MLB Pipeline’s prospect list, but was much better regarded by FanGraphs at #44. Their bio describes Trimble as “ultra toolsy” with power from both sides of the plate and “a plus runner with gap-to-gap range in center field and an above-average arm.” Pipeline adds that Trimble “uses his speed well on the bases” and has 20/20 potential. Still, FanGraphs pegs Trimble as a high-risk prospect due in part to his aggressive plate approach.

The third rounder, Rhodes, is a bit of a mystery, having fallen on hard times this year after a hot freshman season at Kentucky that was limited to 17 games due to COVID. Writes Pipeline: “A year ago, he looked like an advanced hitter with a quick right-handed swing and the ability to make adjustments at the plate, but he has gotten caught up trying to hit homers in 2021.” The Orioles clearly believe the previous version of Rhodes was more the norm than the current one. Let’s hope they’re right.

Of the Orioles’ fourth through 10th round picks, only one — their ninth rounder, Higgins — showed up in any of Law’s, FanGraphs’, or Pipeline’s rankings. Higgins rated 230th on the 250-deep Pipeline list, which assessed, “He’s always hit and had big raw power, but with a looser, more flexible body now, he was getting to that power more this season, giving him the chance to hit for both average and some pop at the next level.” While Higgins was drafted as a third baseman, conventional wisdom is that he’ll ultimately need to move to the outfield.

Orioles decision makers have gone against the grain so far, both in their top-heavy pursuit of college hitters and in the specific players they targeted within that group. Whether those were the right decisions is a question that won’t be answered until years from now.

What’s also unclear at the moment is how the Orioles’ underslot draft strategy will play out for the remainder of this draft. Assuming the O’s do cut a deal with Cowser to shave a substantial chunk of change off the #5 slot value (which is just over $6 million), none of their other picks as yet seem like obvious overslot candidates. Often that kind of money is thrown at high schoolers who require a significant signing bonus to forgo their college commitments, but the O’s have drafted only one prep player (Willems, a TCU commit) so far.

With that in mind, the Orioles could still have a few surprises in store for the final 10 rounds of the draft today. Simple math suggests they’ll probably need to take a few pitchers — they’re going to need to fill out some minor league rosters, after all. And the O’s could have an overslot target or two up their sleeve that would shed the Cowser pick in a new light — perhaps even making a play for someone like two-way prep player Braden Montgomery, ranked 28th on FanGraphs’ board, who is likely Stanford-bound. We’ll have a better understanding of the Orioles’ draft approach this year once the entire picture is complete.

Rounds 11-20 of the MLB draft begin today at noon, streaming online at MLB.com.