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With Orioles draft done, the next task is signing the picks

A couple of day 3 picks who figure to be tough signs make it worth poring over the bonus pool math

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COLLEGE BASEBALL: MAY 20 West Virginia at Texas
18th round pick Tanner Witt, here in action for Texas, is probably the toughest sign of the Orioles draft class.
Photo by David Buono/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Orioles closed out their 2023 draft on Tuesday by finishing off rounds 11-20. For the second straight year, the O’s made a couple of interesting picks in the day 3 group where it will be worth keeping an eye on whether the O’s are able to sign these guys. In round 18, they took University of Texas right-hander Tanner Witt. In round 19, the pick was a high school shortstop from Oklahoma, Kollin Ritchie.

A reminder of the bonus pool math: The Orioles have a total bonus pool of $10,534,800 to use to sign their picks. Each pick in the top ten rounds is assigned a value by MLB and that’s the team’s bonus pool. Money can be spread around as the team wishes. A team can exceed their allotted pool by up to 5% with only a tax on the overage. There are tougher penalties for going above that, with lost future draft picks, that no team has ever reached since this system came along over a decade ago.

Also in the fine print: Failing to sign a pick in the top ten rounds means that money is lost from the bonus pool. Players drafted in rounds 11-20 may sign for up to $125,000 without counting against the pool, and any amount over that figure goes against the pool. Both of these proved relevant to last year’s Orioles draft, as they did not sign third round pick Nolan McLean, and also used extra money on 11th rounder Zack Showalter, a Florida high school pitcher, and 17th round pick Carter Young, a shortstop from Vanderbilt.

The Orioles did not put together a draft class last year that aimed to sign every pick. They ended up with unsigned college juniors in the 15th round (James Hicks), 18th round (Andrew Walters), and 19th round (Alden Mathes). It seems like the Orioles planned to sign at most one of these guys and whoever took the money ($1,325,000 ultimately accepted by Young) first would be the one they got. Walters, a Miami pitcher, moved up to pick #62 in this draft.

Why is Witt worth the late round overslot? He is a pitcher who was mentioned as a likely future first round pick in this draft class until his elbow was hurt last March and he required Tommy John surgery. Teams only got to see him for two starts last year and six starts in his junior year this year, and he wasn’t very good in those six starts. Still believing in his potential, MLB Pipeline’s draft ranking had Witt at as the #76 prospect in the class, or roughly third round money. At The Athletic, Keith Law had Witt even higher, his #45 prospect:

(Witt) hasn’t been very effective or shown the same kind of stuff that made him a likely first-rounder before he got hurt, as he’s been a lot of 89-92 mph with just an adequate breaking ball ... His delivery is fine and should allow him to have above-average control at some point, although he’s been erratic this spring. He really looks like a guy who’s just off Tommy John surgery and hasn’t gotten his full stuff or command back, rather than someone who’s never going to be the same player, and it might just be a matter of how fast he returned to competitive pitching.

The 19th round pick, Ritchie, was a rated prospect on MLB Pipeline’s top 250 players in the draft class, near the bottom of that list at #217. Pipeline on Ritchie:

(Ritchie) didn’t participate much on the showcase circuit and didn’t face much in the way of high school competition, so he rarely has faced a fastball better than 80 mph. ... Ritchie has good athleticism for a 6-foot-2, 210-pounder, though he’ll probably lose a bit of his present speed as he continues to mature physically. ... He should become an average defender at the hot corner with arm strength to match, and he should also be able to handle left field.

Additionally, in the 15th round, the Orioles chose another, unranked high school player, Georgia outfielder Qrey Lott. This 6’4” righty batter is not committed to any major college - he’s headed to junior college. He probably won’t get a large bonus if he signs, but if the Orioles intend to sign him it might take a few hundred thousand extra, like last year’s signing of Showalter.

Another part of this picture is: Where can the Orioles scrape together some extra dollars from their top ten rounds to sign one of these players? In 2020 and 2021, the Orioles utilized the easiest way of getting that kind of cushion by doing under slot draft picks in the top 5 - Heston Kjerstad signed for $2.5 million below the #2 pick value, and Colton Cowser went about $1.2 million below the #5 pick amount.

With a top pick only at #17 overall this year, that avenue is not as readily available. The Orioles selected Vanderbilt outfielder Enrique Bradfield Jr. with that pick in the draft. That seems like a slot value pick (about $4.2 million) to me, based on his ranking in draft prospect lists. With Bradfield’s speed, defensive ability, and on-base skills, that looked like a good value pick. Part of that value was not underslot flexibility, though.

Players who are college seniors or even fifth year players who get drafted in the top ten rounds could also represent possible savings against the pool. The Orioles took a senior, Dallas Baptist pitcher Braxton Bragg, in the eighth round, and a graduate student, Troy pitcher Zach Fruit, in the ninth round. These “senior signs” are players who might sign for $10,000 or even just $5,000.

If the seniors get that small amount instead of their slot values, the Orioles could end up with roughly $350,000 to go over slot elsewhere. On top of that is the potential 5% overage with only a financial penalty, which for easier arithmetic I’m rounding to $525,000. There’s also the free (for counting against the bonus pool purposes) first $125,000 for day 3 picks. This adds up to one million dollars.

This math assumes that no one in rounds 1-10 will require an overslot signing himself. This could end up not being the case. With their third pick in this draft class, the Orioles selected an age-eligible sophomore, Florida State righty Jackson Baumeister. The slot value for that pick is about $1.2 million.

Sophomores can sometimes command an overslot bonus because they have a little leverage to tell a team no thanks, I’ll pitch my junior year and try again. Two years ago, the Orioles went about $500,000 overslot to sign their third round pick, then-Kentucky sophomore John Rhodes.

Baumeister doesn’t look like an overslot guy to me, at least based on where he appeared, or didn’t, on prospect rankings. Law’s top 100 didn’t have Baumeister on it at all. Pipeline’s 250 had him at 167th, which is really more like sixth round talent or a bonus of about $350,000.

Florida State just had its streak of postseason appearances snapped after 44 seasons, so going back there might not be any kind of good bet for Baumeister. In his comments about the O’s draft class, Law noted of Baumeister after a down year that “maybe just getting out of (FSU) and into a pro system will help.”

Based on this, you might even say under slot is what Baumeister ought to get. I don’t know anything. I think for our assumed math purposes, we should put Baumeister at slot unless the report of his signing brings us something to the contrary.

This winding exercise brings us down to the big question: Will Tanner Witt sign for a million bucks? If he will, then the Orioles should sign him and tell Lott and Ritchie good luck in college. Witt might think he can go back to Texas and pitch himself to a two or three million dollar bonus. I tend to think players are better off turning pro as soon as they can get a decent bonus, but I don’t expect to be consulted. If Witt thinks another college year will help him, then the O’s can focus on the late high school picks instead.

(Update hours after publication: Witt tweeted “unfinished business” along with a picture of himself in his Longhorns jersey and an emoji meant to represent the “hook ‘em” gesture popular with UT. That’s a pretty strong sign he plans to return to school, though it is worth noting that last year, Carter Young indicated his plans to transfer to LSU before signing with the Orioles later in the process.)

The deadline to sign the draft picks this year is July 25, so all of this will play out within two weeks. It won’t take long to find out what’s going to happen.