The Orioles sit at the top of Sunday’s MLB draft with several exciting young just-out-of-high school prospects there to be taken with the #1 pick. They had a similar situation with their #5 overall pick last year, with three of the “big four” high school shortstops still on the board, and the Orioles went with Colton Cowser on an underslot deal instead. If the swerve to a college player happens again in 2022, Cal Poly shortstop Brooks Lee could be their guy.
Each year of Elias’s tenure as Orioles GM, the Orioles have taken a college player with their top pick. That’s enough to tempt a person to think there’s a pattern there. Elias, when he discusses his draft outlook publicly, occasionally mentions that the benefit of scouting college players is that they have more of a track record. Predictive models can be more certain about what they are going to be as professional players.
Although it’s three straight drafts with a college guy taken with the Orioles top pick, this doesn’t actually tell us much. In 2019, Adley Rutschman was everyone’s unanimous #1 pick - the surprise would have been if the Orioles took the high schooler, Bobby Witt, instead. In 2020, the team shook up the draft by picking Heston Kjerstad with the #2 pick, but there weren’t many potential high school kids they might have taken instead. As that draft shook out, no high school prospects were selected until the 8th pick.
What we’re left with is last year’s draft, where the Orioles left Jordan Lawlar, Brady House, and Kahlil Watson sitting there and took Cowser. That’s much less of a pattern. They’ll have their own reasons for whatever they do this year.
The draft prognostication part of the baseball media is preparing itself for the possibility that the Orioles will go under slot for a third year in a row. At The Athletic, Keith Law’s most recent mock draft suggested that the Orioles will take Lee, the only college player seen as having a chance of being a 1-1 talent in the draft.
Additionally, an MLB Pipeline survey of other team scouts and executives had the Orioles taking Lee as the plurality choice, with 33% of respondents predicting an O’s selection of Lee. That’s 9/27 people, and Druw Jones as the #1 pick was the choice of 8/27 people, so there is no certainty here. Except that an Orioles fan should be prepared for the idea that their favorite baseball team might take Lee.
In both Law’s ranking of draft prospects and MLB Pipeline’s, Lee is the #5 prospect in the class, trailing four of the prep players. This would not be a case of pulling a guy out of obscurity. The switch-hitting Lee has a track record, having played for the Team USA collegiate baseball squad as well as in the Cape Cod League last summer (photo above). Cape performance always intrigues scouts because unlike college play, it’s done with wood bats. Lee hit .405/.432/.667 in 21 games there in 2021.
Add to that his junior year college play and there’s a lot to like. Every high college pick has a gaudy stat line and Lee’s no exception: .357/.462/.664 in 58 games. He wasn’t exactly facing the best of the best when going up against Big West competition for Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. One nice thing to focus on is that he walked in 16% of his plate appearances, and struck out in fewer than 10%. He won’t repeat those rates as a pro, but it’s a good building block.
Pipeline’s scouting report of Lee to go along with its #5 ranking gives a quick version of the appeal:
Talk to any scout about the switch-hitting infielder and the first thing that comes up are his otherworldly bat-to-ball skills. He almost never strikes out and has made consistent hard contact everywhere he’s been ... He can drive the ball from both sides of the plate and as he’s gotten more physical, it’s easy to project him having better-than-average power in the future.
“otherworldly bat-to-ball skills” is a good phrase to read about if your favorite baseball team has taken a player. See ball, hit ball will get a player a long way towards success, though there’s obviously more to it than that.
If you read yesterday’s article about Termarr Johnson, you will remember that one of his positives is makeup. Pipeline’s report doesn’t use that exact word, but it does also note that Lee is the son of a coach - he was unsignable as a high school prospect three years ago so he could have the opportunity to play for his dad - meaning that he “thinks like one on the field and plays like a veteran, giving more certainty that he’s going to maximize all of his tools as a pro.”
Lee might be less of a surprise #1 pick if there was nothing but positive stuff to say about him. He comes with some question marks about his ability to transition to the pros just like the high school kids do. Law’s report on Lee notes some of the potential issues:
His swing is unorthodox and kind of noisy, with some evident effort, but with all that hip and torso rotation he doesn’t always make the high-quality contact teams are looking for in elite prospects. I don’t think Lee is a shortstop long term; he has outstanding hands that will play anywhere on the field, but his ankles are thick and he’s a 40 runner, so the lateral agility that position demands may just be beyond his physical ability. ... Lee should be a strong regular who makes some All-Star teams as a third or second baseman, but probably doesn’t project to be a superstar.
“probably doesn’t project to be a superstar” is not the phrase you want to read about your favorite baseball team’s potential #1 pick. That’s what the #1 pick in the draft is there for! Get a superstar! Right? Of course, Elias and company have a better idea than any of us about who might be a superstar, and who else in the draft might be a star that would be worth using some of the slot money to sign.
Law does note of Lee that “it’s easier to teach someone to hit the ball harder than it is to teach him to hit the ball in the first place.” He believes the team that takes Lee, whether it’s the Orioles or someone else, will be looking for its development program to get Lee to make harder contact, building on his already-strong ability to make contact at all.
Does that sound familiar? This was also something that could have been said about Cowser last year, as he was a player who was hitting for average with good contact skills but questions about his power as a pro. The questions haven’t been entirely answered yet, though it certainly doesn’t hurt that Cowser has now hit five home runs in 11 games since getting promoted to Double-A Bowie.
Some video of Lee in action in practice:
The Orioles will be on the clock for the #1 pick starting at 7pm Eastern on Sunday night. We won’t have to wait very long after that to find out who they’ve decided to pick. In considering the final days of draft rumors, one thing to keep in mind is that the Orioles brain trust has almost certainly not made its final decision and is probably not directly telling any draft writer which way they are leaning. The mock draft world is only guessing. Maybe some of them will guess right.