No one needs to spend a whole lot of time examining the 2021 Orioles roster to realize that a big problem with the team is the starting rotation. It’s a problem that could echo out beyond this year because of how many of the high-minors pitching prospects whose futures potentially included pitching in the back end of a rotation with Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall have flamed out so far this year.
A team can never have too many pitching prospects, especially when so many of those prospects were drafted or acquired by the previous general manager, whose regime’s ability to identify and develop talent was suspect overall. So it’s not a surprise that as we head towards the 2021 edition of the MLB draft, mainstream prospect writers have indicated that the Orioles are interested in Vanderbilt’s Jack Leiter if he should remain available when the O’s #5 pick rolls around.
That’s a big if. The latest round of mock drafts from MLB Pipeline, Keith Law, and Fangraphs all have Leiter being taken by either the Rangers at #2 or the Tigers at #3. Previous rounds of mock drafts floated speculation that the Red Sox, who pick at #4, were trying to finagle some scenario where Leiter falls to their pick. The FG mock notes that it would have to be “something strange” for the O’s to get Leiter or Louisville catcher Henry Davis to their spot.
A year ago, it was the Orioles themselves who did that “something strange” to set in motion a scenario where another Vanderbilt player, Austin Martin, fell to #5 instead of going at #2, where everyone expected the O’s to take him.
Based on current mocks, a Leiter to the Orioles scenario would probably play out like this: Some combination of high school shortstops Marcelo Mayer and Jordan Lawlar was the 1-2 picks. Then, the Tigers pick either Brady House, another highly-regarded prep shortstop, or Jackson Jobe, thought to be the best high school pitcher in the draft. Then the Red Sox take Davis. Play out this same scenario with the Sox taking Leiter and that’s probably how Davis gets to the Orioles.
All of which is to say that no matter how awesome anything you read below about Leiter sounds, don’t get too attached. It looks like the only question about Leiter is whether he’ll play for a different division in the AL or whether he will be a part of the Red Sox tormenting the Orioles for years to come all because the Red Sox fluked into out-sucking the O’s in a 60-game season even though they won 84 games the prior season and now that it’s a full season again they’re on pace for 99 wins in 2021. I hate those guys.
Leiter, a right-handed pitcher who turned 21 in April, is the son of Al Leiter. The elder Leiter had 11 years of his 19-year career play out in New York City for the Yankees and Mets and also spent time with the Blue Jays and Marlins. Teams are often fond of sons of former big leaguers not only because of the athletic DNA being likely to be passed along, but because sons of longtime big leaguers probably grew up around the game and are already acclimated to some of the mental aspects of baseball.
Not every son of a big leaguer inherits enough of the talent to become a big leaguer himself. Sorry to Billy Ripken’s nephew Ryan, currently OPSing .462 at Triple-A Norfolk as a 27-year-old in what feels like a personal favor from the Angelos family to the Ripken family. Of course, two of the game’s brightest stars right now are second generation MLBers who share a name with their dads: Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Fernando Tatis Jr. are in the highlight reels almost nightly.
The younger Leiter is a draft-eligible sophomore. He did not sign after having been drafted in the 20th round by the Yankees two years ago. At the time, he was rumored to be looking for as much as a $4 million signing bonus. Jack looks like he will handily eclipse that two years later. It was a good bet on himself, as he has continued to flash a high level of talent even with his freshman season being interrupted by a global pandemic. This time last year, he seemed like a surefire #1 or #2 pick. He may slip past #2, but top five looks almost assured.
Leiter is the kind of pitcher putting up amateur stats where you don’t need much of a discerning eye to see there must be something interesting going on there. In his sophomore season for the Commodores, Leiter struck out 179 batters and allowed only 48 hits in 110 innings. That added up to a 0.845 WHIP. That’s not exactly “video game numbers” but it’s pretty close.
At Fangraphs, Leiter is rated as the #3 prospect in the class, behind Mayer and Davis. They note that he’s not a “Stephen Strasburg type prospect” who would be a guaranteed first overall pick, noting that he has a lot of potential and current skills but also some challenges to overcome:
Leiter is a modern power pitcher with feel for pitch execution that comes and goes. When he’s on, he’s blowing his fastball past hitters in the zone because of the velo and carry on the pitch, some of which is aided by Leiter’s medium size and big stride down the mound. With that he pairs two breaking balls. The curveball, which lives in the upper-70s and has big vertical depth, is the more consistent of the two right now. ... the biggest piece of Leiter’s pro development will be either defining these two breakers more clearly (i.e. throw a harder slider) or mastering a changeup.
In prior eras of the Orioles, you could find fewer more horrifying thoughts than the idea that those people needed to get their top pitching prospects to develop either a slider or a change-up. Leiter had his problems with command this year, after all, since he walked more than 10% of batters he faced, and he gave up 14 home runs besides.
The guys around in the Andy MacPhail days couldn’t get much out of “the cavalry” and the guys around in the Dan Duquette days couldn’t ever quite get things going for Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman, two slam-dunk well-regarded pitching prospects. Early returns in the Elias era for top pitching prospects are better, and they certainly shouldn’t make draft decisions assuming that some kind of pitching prospect curse exists in the organization that carried over from before they were here.
An assumption has sunk in about Elias that because of the experience with drafting Mark Appel and Brady Aiken, back-to-back #1 overall pitcher busts, while he was an assistant in Houston, that he eschews pitchers with his top picks. He has not challenged the assumption by not drafting a pitcher until the eighth round in 2019 and fifth round in 2020.
Leiter, perhaps, is good enough that Elias would be tempted to make an exception to a general rule of trying not to spend high picks on pitchers. That’s if Leiter makes it to #5 overall. I won’t hold my breath and you shouldn’t either. We’ll find out how it all goes in another three days, as Day 1 of the draft gets under way at 7 o’clock Eastern on Sunday.