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The Orioles went their own way in their 2021 draft class. Now we’ll see if it works.

The Orioles 2021 draft strategy left some room for second-guessing by mainstream experts. Over time, we’ll see who was right.

Lloyd Fox/The Baltimore Sun/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

The deadline for teams to sign their picks from the 2021 draft class has now passed. The Orioles signed all 21 of the picks that they made in the draft. They settled their affairs well before the deadline, with no will-they-or-won’t-they drama for any pick. There is no special prize for this, so this fact won’t console anyone very much if five years down the road, we are looking back on an underwhelming O’s draft class.

This draft marks the second straight year that the Orioles chose to pursue an underslot strategy in making their top pick. The pick at #5, outfielder Colton Cowser, agreed to a signing bonus of $4.9 million. That was about $1.3 million under the slot value for the pick. This pool money was utilized later in the draft, as the O’s used their eighth round pick on high school catcher Creed Willems and signed him for about $800,000 above slot. They also went about $500,000 over slot on their third round pick, Kentucky outfielder John Rhodes.

In picking Cowser, the Orioles passed on three of the still-available “big four” high school shortstops. Those players were Jordan Lawlar, eventually taken sixth by the Diamondbacks, Brady House, picked 11th by the Nationals, and Kahlil Watson, selected 16th by the Marlins.

With the understanding that of course hindsight is always 20/20, there are a couple of different ways to monitor the progress of the draft class. One road not taken is staying away from the House/Lawlar/Watson tier of player. Even within the underslot path, the O’s went off in a different direction than what someone might have imagined if they knew the O’s were going to sock away an extra $1.3 million in slot money from the top pick.

As time goes by, those are the teams I’ll be keeping an eye on to see how their draft picks worked out in comparison to the O’s.

Pittsburgh Pirates

One thing that struck me as soon as the draft was over is that the Pirates had the kind of draft that you might have hoped the Orioles would have if you knew they were doing an under slot strategy. The Pirates went about $2 million underslot in taking catcher Henry Davis at #1 overall, then made three straight picks of high schoolers that went significanly overslot: $800k over for pitcher Anthony Solometo, $450k over for outfielder Lonnie White, $2.2 million over for pitcher Bubba Chandler.

Pre-draft prospect rankings are obviously not the definitive way to know a player’s eventual pro performance, but it’s quite striking that the Pirates were able to get three players in MLB Pipeline’s top 21 prospects in this way. The O’s, in contrast, got just two players in the top 100 despite picking four times in the top 100. Their overslot high schooler Willems was not on the radar of the mainstream writers of the prospect-industrial complex.

Pittsburgh had a significant luxury over the Orioles in that they were the worst team in 2020, so they picked first. Once they decided to get Davis, there is no way the Orioles could have had him; what’s more, they had the luxury of getting him underslot at #1 when that would have been a slot value pick for the Orioles at #5. They had their second pick of Solometo come before the O’s could make a second pick, as well.

One price the Pirates paid in loading up on all of these guys is that they only ended up with one player with a signing bonus in the range of $200-500k. They went under slot in every round from 5-10, including three low-bonus senior signs that basically amount to punted picks. The Orioles ended up with five players in the $200-500k bonus range, and no player in their top ten rounds received a bonus below $100k.

The O’s, unlike the Pirates, were able to select a college performer, second baseman Connor Norby, with their second round pick by not immediately turning around and using the overslot money right away, say, on high school outfielder Joshua Baez, who went to the Cardinals at #54 for $2.25 million.

Arizona Diamondbacks

This team picked right after the Orioles and used the opportunity to pick Lawlar, who received a bonus of about $1 million over the slot value of the #6 pick. Whether Lawlar would have settled for the exact same bonus is unknowable, but for the sake of this exercise, let’s assume so. That would have been about $500k over slot at #5.

The Orioles could have picked Jordan Lawlar and had almost the exact same draft that they had after the first round. The only choices they would have had to make differently is taking Lawlar instead of Cowser, and taking a closer to eighth round slot college player instead of Willems.

If Cowser is a good player, Orioles fans aren’t going to get too worked up about who they could have taken instead. Perhaps part of the angst over the underslot strategy is the fate of 2020 #2 overall pick Heston Kjerstad. The fact that he hasn’t been able to play yet due to myocarditis was not one of the foreseeable risks of the strategy last year. But if Cowser doesn’t work out, it may be understandable to be chapped about who wasn’t picked.

Washington Nationals

House falling to the Nationals at #11 was a bit of a surprise after how much talk there’d been of the “big four” going within the top seven or so. The O’s southern neighbors signed House for $5 million, about $500k above their slot at #11. I think that House would have demanded a greater bonus from the Orioles at #5. Once his choices were the Nationals’ $5 million or college, taking the $5 million was surely easy. That’s top 9 pick money. Not many high schoolers can count on getting that much as college juniors three years down the road.

Similar to the Diamondbacks and Lawlar, the Orioles draft could have proceeded similarly to what they actually did if they’d picked House first instead of Cowser. Let’s say that the Orioles could have signed House for $5.5 million - about $700k under slot. That still gets them every player in their draft class except for Cowser and Willems.

A team can exceed its draft pool by up to 5% and the only penalty they pay is a tax on the overage. The O’s pool was $11,829,300, leaving them very close to $600k of overage space available. They did spend nearly every dollar of the pool but did not make use of the overage in making their signings. According to Pipeline’s Jim Callis, 20 teams exceeded their bonus pool by less than 5% this year.

Miami Marlins

The Marlins ended up with Watson at #16 for a reported bonus of about $4.5 million, which was about $750k over slot for Miami’s pick. This was basically every extra dollar that the Marlins could scrape together without getting into the territory where they have to forfeit a future draft pick to make a signing. That penalty hits beyond 5% of the draft pool; since this system’s inception in 2012, no team has hit that penalty level.

What that means for the idea of the Orioles picking Watson is that, similar to House, that’s probably not a pick they could have made at that price at #5. What I’ve seen is that he wanted at least $5 million. That’s very close to what the O’s gave Cowser, so again, there’s that specter of the possibility of having the same draft class except with Watson instead of Cowser, and maybe a mid-round college player instead of Willems.

In comments made before the draft, Orioles GM Mike Elias said that the Orioles “should be getting an impact player” with the #5 pick, and that “we’ll feel like we failed with the pick” if that doesn’t happen. I take Elias at his word and believe that the O’s earnestly think Cowser is that impact player, so what we’re left with now is finding out if his judgment is correct.

Jud Fabian

At #40 in the draft, the Boston Red Sox selected outfielder Jud Fabian from the University of Florida. He was one of three players from the top ten rounds of the draft who did not sign prior to yesterday’s deadline.

Veteran baseball scribe Peter Gammons tweeted last week that Fabian had been offered $3 million by multiple teams for a second round pick, including the Orioles, one pick later at #41. Slot value at #40 was about $1.8 million. It seems this was not enough to entice Fabian to sign. A $3 million bonus demand is pick #22 money. Fabian was rated 23rd on Pipeline’s top draft prospects list and 24th on Fangraphs, so that checks out. This was not universal acclaim. The Athletic’s Keith Law had him at 59th.

This is just one rumor from one guy, so take it with a grain of salt. What’s noteworthy if it’s true is this would mark the second straight year of the O’s doing an underslot and getting beaten to picking their Plan A player for the extra money. A persistent rumor following the 2020 draft was that the O’s wanted to use the underslot money on high school pitcher Nick Bitsko at #30, except he was taken instead by the Rays at #24. It’s a risk of the strategy. The guy you like the most might not get to the next pick you make.

The Orioles didn’t draft a bunch of bums

Whether the O’s did or didn’t hope for Bitsko with the second pick last year, the guy the O’s ended up taking was shortstop Jordan Westburg at #30. Westburg hasn’t given much reason for heartburn about this choice yet, as he’s batting .299/.407/.497 in 51 games with High-A Aberdeen. Fourth rounder Coby Mayo, a high schooler who did get some of that overslot money, has some nice results early in his pro career. Mayo has three home runs in his first 17 games in the Florida Complex League, with almost as many walks (11) as strikeouts (12).

Elias and company are not infallible in their judgments about players, but so far they’ve given plenty of reason to believe that they can pick out some good pro prospects from the amateur ranks if you give them the chance. The 2019 draft didn’t feature any under slot stuff. What it did feature is more good judgment for second round picks Gunnar Henderson and Kyle Stowers.

This carries over into looking at the 2021 class. The Orioles passed on three of the Big Four. They passed on Kumar Rocker, who ended up not signing with the Mets at all. They didn’t splash money at high school players who a dedicated pre-draft coverage follower would have known. They still got some interesting guys.

Second round pick Norby had his fans among multiple rankings. Though Pipeline only put him 58th, both Fangraphs and Law had him at 25th. Getting late first round talent early in the second round is good! Competitive balance round B pick Reed Trimble also rates, coming in at 44th on the Fangraphs pre-draft list. The O’s got him at #65. FG liked Cowser the best of all of the rankings as well. He’s now #85 in their top 100 before seeing a professional pitch. And maybe there will turn out to be something about Willems after all.