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Orioles 2021 draft preview: Colton Cowser

The Orioles used an underslot strategy in last year’s draft. If they repeat that, Sam Houston State outfielder Colton Cowser could be a name for Birdland to know.

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Shriners Hospitals For Children College Classic
Possible future Oriole Colton Cowser is jersey number 17 in this photograph.
Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Mike Elias caught the mainstream baseball prospect writers of the world off guard last year when he drafted Arkansas outfielder Heston Kjerstad with the #2 overall pick. Though some pre-draft mock drafts mentioned this as a remote possibility, no one actually stepped up and made a mock that assume that pick.

In a “fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me” kind of way, those writers have been determined not to be caught off guard again this draft season. The possibility of the Orioles once again using an underslot drafting strategy with their top pick is mentioned in just about every mock draft and the O’s have been linked to different players who’d be seen as underslot selections through the process.

That includes Sam Houston State outfielder Colton Cowser, picked by the O’s at #5 in yesterday’s Fangraphs mock draft. Cowser was also the pick for the O’s in the most recent mock draft done by The Athletic’s Keith Law. Earlier this week, I previewed two possible full slot picks: NC high school shortstop Kahlil Watson, and Louisville catcher Henry Davis.

It is important to remember that a team going underslot on its top pick is not being cheap. Makers of this complaint reveal themselves as uninformed. A team going underslot is choosing to allocate its draft pool differently than the slot values, with money not spent on the first round pick being used to get higher-rated talents with later picks in the draft.

Last year, the O’s signed Kjerstad for $5.2 million, about $2.5 million under the value of the #2 pick. They used about $1.2 million of that on fourth round pick Coby Mayo, about $1.1 million of it on fifth round pick Carter Baumler, and about $100,000 on third round pick Anthony Servideo. The Orioles immediate returns on employing this strategy in 2020 are minimal, but they used that money. If the draft writers of the world have good information, the O’s 2020 draft outcome is not going to scare them off from trying again.

Among my commonly-referenced big three draft prospect rankings (Fangraphs, Law and, MLB Pipeline), Cowser ranks as the 7th, 14th, and 10th best prospect in the class, respectively. The slot value for #5 this year is about $6.2 million. If Cowser took #10 slot money (about $4.7 million) the O’s would have an extra $1.5 million or so to spread around to other picks. The benefit to Cowser in taking an underslot deal of this sort is that there’s no guarantee he would be drafted before the #10 pick at all.

A GM using this strategy is going to make fans of his team happier if his judgment is correct about the player the team ultimately takes rather than going for a consensus talent for the #5 pick. With Kjerstad last year, Orioles fans will always be anxiously looking at Austin Martin, selected by the Blue Jays.

If it’s Cowser this year, his success may be measured against prep shortstops Watson and Jordan Lawlar, or even Vanderbilt pitcher Kumar Rocker, who the O’s would be passing on to go under slot in the Fangraphs mock scenario. Other possible targets like Davis, Brady House, and Jack Leiter were not available to the O’s in the mock. The FG duo of Eric Longenhagen and Kevin Goldstein believes the O’s would consider any of House, Davis or Leiter if they make it to #5.

At Fangraphs, where Cowser’s #7 ranking is his highest of this bunch of analysts, the scouting report offers some of the appeal:

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.

A baseball team can certainly do worse than finding the player with the best bat-to-ball skills in a given draft class, especially when he is a lefty batter like Cowser. The contact ability helped Cowser to a .374/.490/.680 batting line where he struck out in just 12.6% of his plate appearances this year. That’s pretty good!

Now, quick, name the conference that Sam Houston State plays in. If you could come up with the Southland Conference off the top of your head, congratulations on the depths of your useless knowledge.

It’s good for Cowser that he hit 16 homers, stole 17 bases, and walked 10 times more than he struck out in 55 games. Numbers when his conference opponents include the likes of Incarnate Word and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi only go so far towards telling us how he’ll do against pro pitching.

One question about Cowser is how much he’ll be able to play for power if he ever makes it to MLB. He went four weeks between home runs at one point this season, even against the teams he was playing against.

The Pipeline report on Cowser reflects that he also answered some questions this spring about whether he was an option in center field:

Scouts were somewhat split on Cowser’s ability to play center field, though they believe in him now that he has posted consistent plus running times this spring. He has good defensive instincts in center, possesses an average arm ... and spent part of his freshman season at third base.

Elias once said that getting quality up-the-middle players (catcher, shortstop, second base, center field) is something that keeps him up at night. The Kjerstad pick, even if it had worked out to date, ventured a bit off that path. Cowser as a possible center fielder would be a way to add talent up the middle. Pipeline grades the speed of the 6’3” 195 lb. outfielder at 60 on baseball’s peculiar 20-80 scouting scale. For a lefty batter, that’s a 4.1 second run to first.

The Fangraphs mock draft notes that Cowser is going to appeal to teams that are reliant on draft models to predict performance, and that the Orioles are one of those teams in the Elias era. In some models, according to the FG duo, Cowser is “behind only Davis in terms of offensive potential among the college bats.”

If the Orioles end up choosing Cowser, it would be nice if the models turn out to be right. One final intangible: The name Colton Cowser interacts righteously with the stereotype of the Baltimore accent. The first round of this year’s draft takes place on Sunday night, so we’ll find out who the Orioles take with the top pick in another four days.