The 2020 MLB draft was destined not to be an ordinary draft as soon as the global pandemic cut off high school and college seasons before they could be finished. The draft became more unpredictable still when MLB cynically decided to limit the draft to five rounds instead of what had been the usual 40.
A lot of what passes for talent on the 2021 Orioles roster arrived by being drafted later than the fifth round. Cedric Mullins was a 13th round pick. John Means was an 11th round pick. Trey Mancini was an eighth round pick. It’s not likely that the Orioles, given 40 rounds, would have found the next Mullins, Means, or Mancini in last year’s draft, but for a team whose only focus is the rebuilding project, it’s a shame they didn’t get to add more lottery tickets to the farm system.
What the Orioles did have was the #2 overall pick in the draft. Though they were a very bad baseball team in 2019, compiling a 54-108 record, they were out-sucked in Tankapalooza by the Tigers, who only won 47 games. This same fate seems to await the 2021 Orioles, with the Diamondbacks playing the Tigers role of “team with a worse record than an extremely horrible O’s squad.”
Thus it was Detroit who was presented with the obvious #1 choice - much like the Orioles were with Adley Rutschman a year earlier - who then made that exact choice: Spencer Torkelson. The former Arizona State third baseman was assigned to High-A to start this season, dropped a 1.009 OPS on the High-A Central in 31 games, then ascended to Double-A, where he’s OPSing over .900. Sometimes it’s good to be the worst.
With Detroit zeroed in on Torkelson and everyone being well aware of this, the Orioles had their pick of any other available player. Instead of going with the player who “everyone” in the draft prospect writing world expected, Vanderbilt’s Austin Martin, the O’s instead chose to pick a player who would sign for less than the #2 overall slot money, in order to use the extra money to sign players with potential later in the draft.
That player ended up being Kjerstad, who signed for about $2.5 million under the #2 slot value. Between being drafted and reporting to the Bowie alternate training site, Kjerstad developed myocarditis, which is heart inflammation typically resulting from a viral infection. One particular virus has gotten a lot of attention in the last 14 months. The inflammation kept Kjerstad from the training site, fall instructional league, and spring training, and has kept him from being assigned to any affiliate to date.
It’s a bummer for Kjerstad on a human level. Like with Mancini’s cancer diagnosis last year, the number one thing to root for is that he’ll be OK to live a full life. Baseball is a distant second to that. Obviously, it’s a bummer for the Orioles rebuild project also. While the O’s, in drafting Kjerstad, pursued a strategy with risks, this specific outcome was not one of the foreseeable risks.
Even with the underslot strategy, this was sort of an off the reservation pick. Kjerstad was rated as the #10 prospect in the class by MLB Pipeline and #11 by Keith Law. Only at Fangraphs, where Kjerstad was the #7 prospect, did he receive a ranking commensurate with the bonus the O’s paid him.
What probably sold Mike Elias on Kjerstad is that he had a track record of hitting for power against SEC competition. Consider: We are all very excited about Adley Rutschman’s power potential. Rutschman had nine home runs in 67 games as a college sophomore. Kjerstad hit 17 dingers as a sophomore and was on pace for 24 when the novel coronavirus came along. Other evaluators were concerned by Kjerstad’s potential to swing and miss too much as a pro. The Orioles decisionmakers, it seems, were less concerned.
Prospect writer Jim Callis recently reiterated in an interview with MASN’s Steve Melewski that the industry believed the Orioles hoped to use the underslot savings to sign Pennsylvania high school pitcher Nick Bitsko. Pipeline rated Bitsko 14th in the class, Fangraphs 16th, and Law 18th. That would have been a nice prospect to add to the system.
This roll of the dice did not work out. Bitsko was drafted at #24 by the Rays, six picks before the O’s had a chance to make a second selection. With the draft prognostication world lining up behind the idea that Elias might make an underslot pick again, I hope that at least if he does it this time his insight about the player he wants making it to his second pick will bear out.
Some players they passed on
- Max Meyer, #3 to Marlins: 1.84 ERA in 10 Double-A starts, walking 4.4 per nine innings
- Asa Lacy, #4 to Royals: 5.40 ERA in 10 High-A starts, striking out 14.9 per nine but walking 7.2
- Martin, #5 to Blue Jays: .785 OPS at Double-A, only two home runs in 38 games
- Emerson Hancock, #6 to Mariners: 2.42 ERA, 1.038 WHIP in seven High-A starts
- Nick Gonzales, #7 to Pirates: .877 OPS with four homers in 17 High-A games
I think if the Orioles could do it all over again with only the knowledge of Kjerstad’s coming problems added to what they already knew last year, they’d pick Gonzales, a shortstop drafted out of New Mexico State.
Elias returned to the ranks of SEC hitters for the O’s pick in Round A, the competitive balance round between the first and second rounds of the draft. Westburg was the shortstop for Mississippi State. They ended up signing him for the full slot value of the pick, $2,365,500. Among the three rankings I’ve already mentioned, he was 32nd, 37th, and 40th. Maybe a slight reach relative to consensus at 30, but not as eyebrow-raising as picking Kjerstad.
The Athletic’s Law was the low man on Westburg among the mainstream prospect writers at draft time, and remains so today, putting Westburg as the #15 prospect in the system in his preseason ranking:
The Orioles’ second-round pick out of Mississippi State, Westburg is a very good athlete who could stay at shortstop or probably be an above-average defender at second or third, but he struck out too often in college and has a big leak at the plate that led to trouble with off-speed stuff.
Westburg quickly forced a promotion after 20 games of hot hitting with Low-A Delmarva. He’s since hit .266/.361/.426 in 24 games for High-A Aberdeen. They’ve had him split time between third base and shortstop, since he’s been on the same rosters as Gunnar Henderson.
As for the strikeouts, Westburg has whiffed or been rung up in about 25% of his plate appearances this year. Among big league Orioles with at least 100 plate appearances, he would come in fifth with that strikeout rate. It’s early to write him off and early to put him in the next good Orioles infield. Hopefully as the year goes along, he does more to paint himself into that picture.
Haskin, then a Tulane outfielder, a draft-eligible sophomore, was picked by the Orioles near the top of the second round. Like Westburg, he received slot value for the pick, $1,906,800. Relative to the rankings, this was even more of a reach at #39. Haskin was 51st in Law’s big board for the class, 74th at Pipeline, and 76th at Fangraphs.
This is not a spot in the draft where stars are usually found. Going back to the draft’s inception in 1965, three players drafted and signed at #39 have then accumulated 10+ WAR as big leaguers. It “feels” high enough to talk yourself into your favorite player finding someone to make an impact there, but that’s the reality. These are guys with flaws who might smooth out the flaws enough for some success, have limited success in spite of those flaws, or might not succeed.
Here’s Fangraphs’ Eric Longenhagen on Haskin, who he rated as the #22 prospect in the O’s system before the season:
Haskin was an age-eligible sophomore last year with plus speed and a quirky swing that he makes work. He has average power and can yank some pitches out to his pull side, but his swing doesn’t really let it play in games because he’s often cutting down at the ball. He does track pitches very well, though, and gets the barrel to balls all over the zone. He projects as a tweener fourth outfielder but a swing change that better enables Haskins (sic) to hit with lift could also raise his ceiling.
Haskin was assigned to Low-A Delmarva to begin the season and has remained there while batting .280/.382/.445 through 42 games. That’s even as the O’s have promoted another college player, Westburg, from the same draft class. Maybe some of that swing work is being done and the O’s want Haskin to have more time to adjust to it before challenging him with a higher level.
Another pick, back to another SEC hitter, with the O’s grabbing Servideo from the University of Mississippi. You may have heard that he had an O’s connection already, as he is the grandson of 1965 Rookie of the Year Curt Blefary. Servideo was 55th on the Fangraphs ranking of the class, 110th at MLB Pipeline, and unranked on Keith Law’s top 100. The O’s gave him a $950,000 bonus, or a bit more than $100,000 over the slot value.
Longenhagen thinks that the Orioles “got in on the ground floor of a potential everyday player,” though that’s certainly not a widely-held opinion yet. Servideo has not had much chance as a pro to show anything different. He hit .246/.489/.311 in 20 games before landing on the injured list with a hip issue. He hasn’t played in a month.
The Orioles splashed about $1.2 million over their fourth round slot value to sign Mayo, who’s got close to the platonic ideal of a name to be shouted by a caricature of a Baltimore accent, from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. He was a sophomore when 14 of his fellow students were murdered at school. After being drafted, he told reporters that he plays “for those who can’t play” and that he wants to “fulfill their dreams by me fulfilling mine.”
MLB Pipeline’s pre-draft scouting report on Mayo offered some upside along with the reality of why he was rated their #132 player in the class:
There are no questions about Mayo’s raw power from the right side of the plate. He can flat-out crush the ball, using his strong 6-foot-5 frame to his advantage. The concerns crop up regarding whether he’ll hit enough to get to that power on a consistent basis. There’s swing and miss to his game and while he’ll show the ability to drive the ball to the opposite field in batting practice, he can get very pull-happy in games.
Mayo was drafted as a third baseman, but the scouting world is also not convinced he will stay there. There’s hope that if he did slide off the position, it would be to a corner outfield spot rather than first base, as he has enough of an arm for the outfield.
The Orioles assigned Mayo to the Florida Complex League Orioles Black team, whose season began earlier this week. He had battled a knee injury before that. Mayo has three hits over the first two games.
Baumler, a pitcher from the Iowa high school ranks, received about $1 million more than the fifth round slot value from the Orioles. He is the only pitcher they drafted with their six picks in this draft.
He’s had even less chance to show anything than even the rest of his draft class because he had to get Tommy John surgery last fall. So much for the sentence “Scouts love Baumler’s clean delivery and arm action, which should allow him to throw strikes and stay healthy” from his scouting report. It’ll be 2022 before his development can resume.
The pandemic meant that no team’s 2020 draft class had a smooth path into the pros. For the Orioles class, it’s been a tougher road than most. Kjerstad’s challenges are the highest profile, and only two of the six picks have avoided some kind of injury so far. It’s not really anybody’s fault, but it’s not the ideal beginning for a draft class that fans had hoped could become a crucial pillar of the rebuilding effort actually resulting in something good being built.