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Orioles 2021 draft preview: Kahlil Watson

A quartet of high school shortstops have gotten teams attention. The Orioles are one of the teams interested in Kahlil Watson.

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2020 Major League Baseball Draft
One recent mock draft predicts the Orioles will take NC high school shortstop Kahlil Watson at #5 this year.
Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The shortened 2020 season turned out to be a lot more fun than anyone expected for Orioles fans. The early summer jokes about how the team might not hit double digit wins were quickly silenced and the team eventually finished with a 25-35 record, on pace for 68 wins over a regular 162 game schedule.

One result of that is that instead of picking first, like the Orioles did two years ago, or second, like they did last year, the O’s top pick in the 2021 draft comes in at #5. There is a lot more to juggle in trying to forecast a #5 pick because there are four teams who could make a pick that blows up Mike Elias’s ideal draft board. Over the course of this week, I’ll be previewing some of the players who seem like possible O’s picks based on the latest from the draft rumor mill.

A recent mock draft by MLB Pipeline prospect writer Jonathan Mayo linked the Orioles to Kahlil Watson, a shortstop from Wake Forest High School in North Carolina. Watson is one of four high school shortstops in the draft class, along with Brady House, Jordan Lawlar, and Marcelo Mayer, expected to go in the top eight picks of the draft. In Mayo’s mock, and in nearly every mock draft to date, Mayer is the #1 pick. The other three were available and the mock Orioles went with Watson.

When taking into account various writers rankings of the draft prospects, this would be a much more conventional pick than what the O’s did last year in selecting Heston Kjerstad at #2. Watson is ranked as the #4 prospect in the class by both Pipeline and Fangraphs. The Athletic’s Keith Law is a bit lower on Watson than others, placing him at #8.

If the Orioles decide they want a significant underslot pick again, it’s not very likely they’ll be taking Watson. The slot value of the #5 pick is $6,180,700. To be determined whether the draft prognosticators of the world are overreacting to the choice of Kjerstad last year by overestimating the O’s chances of an underslot pick this year.

It’s not hard to find an exciting-sounding scouting report for a potential top 5-7 pick. There have been mock drafts in the last month where Watson isn’t even available for the Orioles because one of the teams above him took him first. Watson’s capsule at Fangraphs is easily in the group of exciting-sounding reports:

Electricity personified, Watson has the best bat speed in the entire 2021 draft class. He has an up-the-middle defensive projection (probably second base) and the potential for star-level power and speed output. Watson has a badass uppercut swing and his smaller frame and short levers prevent the swing from being too long and vulnerable to velocity.

Any team can do a lot worse than bringing “the best bat speed in the entire 2021 draft class” into the system. The FG report does note some risk, with there being some question about how Watson will do with breaking pitch recognition.

The concern about moving to second base is about whether Watson has the arm strength to make the kind of throws a good shortstop needs to make to get out runners rather than have them reach on infield hits. Not every report on Watson is as concerned. Law’s blurb on Watson says that he has “enough speed and athleticism to stay at shortstop with some work.” And that’s the guy who’s lowest on Law out of this trio.

Among their top five prospects in the class, Fangraphs considers Watson as being the one who has the biggest amount of variance in his possible outcomes. Maybe Elias will want to swing for the fences, or maybe he will see less risk than some of these prospect writers in Watson.

Watson’s stock has risen somewhat as the spring has gone along. Part of that may be because his varsity team’s senior season began later than many other high schoolers, with games only beginning in the last week of April. The result is that where other draft prospects were done with those games for the season, Watson was the one top prep prospect still playing in real games. Law hasn’t updated his big board since mid-May. Fangraphs and Pipeline updated after getting more info about Watson.

Here’s some video of Watson taking some cuts with a wood bat during a showcase last fall:

I’ve started the video about halfway through because the first part is mostly just Watson taking pitches. There are some good rips in here. As you can see, Watson is a lefty batter, giving him that little extra edge since most pitchers, like most people, are right-handed.

The video also shows off some of Watson’s speed. Pipeline grades him as a 65 runner, which means that he does a 60-yard dash in 6.6 seconds. Not bad. MLB defenders will probably airmail the throw to first base just a bit less often. They grade his other four tools (hit, power, field, arm) at 55. That’s above-average on all five tools of baseball’s peculiar 20-80 scouting scale.

The MLB draft capsule on Watson lists him as 5’9” and 178 lbs. Other places say he’s 5’11”. It’s a little weird, although not too weird. Watson turned 18 in April and may have added a bit more height since the scouting world identified him as a possible pick in this year’s draft and turned its eyes towards him.

Elias drafted three shortstops in the first five rounds in his first draft in 2019 and added two more shortstops in the truncated 2020 draft. Getting talented up-the-middle players is clearly one of the ways he wants to add to the talent pipeline for the organization.

Whether the Orioles end up adding Watson to that mix will depend first on whether another team decides to take Watson before the O’s can pick. If Watson gets down to #5, then it will depend on whether Elias decides that drafting Watson would be the best bang for his buck. We are less than a week away from finding out how those things shake out.