Happy Fourth of July, Camden Chatters! While we spend this week celebrating our country’s independence, let us also not lose sight of the fact that it’s also draft week! The first round of the 2023 MLB draft gets under way on July 9th, and this draft promises to be a unique experience for the Orioles’ front office and Birdland.
Players like Anthony Santander, John Means and All-Star Austin Hays are undoubtedly an important part of the fabric of this rebuilt Orioles roster. However, at its core this is an organization that was revitalized by the work Mike Elias & Co. did through the MLB Draft. In the current front office’s first draft back in 2019, they selected franchise cornerstones Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson, while Kyle Stowers and Joey Ortiz join Adley and Gunnar as ‘19 draftees who have already made their major league debuts.
Jordan Westburg’s debut last week makes him the first player from the 2020 O’s draft to reach the majors, but Heston Kjerstad and Coby Mayo seem destined to join him in Baltimore sooner rather than later. Colton Cowser will almost certainly be the first debutant from the 2021 draft and Jackson Holliday and Jud Fabian both feel like 2022 draft picks who could push for debuts in 2024.
A constant theme throughout Mike Elias’ tenure as general manager is his emphasis on college bats at the top of the draft. It seems like an eventuality that one day we’ll be treated to a lineup with Rutschman, Westburg, Ortiz, Kjerstad and Cowser forming the heart of the O’s batting order. While players like Henderson, Holliday and Mayo—who are the premier high school picks on Elias’ resume—are no doubt foundational pieces as well, they are still outliers. Prep to Pro is not a pipeline Baltimore’s front office favors, as collegiate players have always been the preference both early and late in the most recent drafts.
There’s a lot of reason to suggest that this strategy came about not just from personal philosophy, but also the dire nature of the Orioles’ previous circumstances. After all, the last team the Orioles fielded before Elias took over featured players like Tim Beckham, Renato Núñez, Stevie Wilkerson and DJ Stewart. To call that bunch a collection of AAAA All-Stars would be vastly overselling the collective talent the Orioles had prior to 2019.
So naturally, on a team bereft of truly MLB caliber players—let alone difference makers—it’s easy to see why the front office might favor collegiate bats in particular. Players taken out of college usually need much less time in the minor leagues before they’re ready to make their major league debuts. Rutschman and Stowers made their debuts in their third full professional seasons and it might have been sooner had they not canceled the 2020 minor league season due to the pandemic. The Orioles needed reinforcements at the major league level as soon as possible and their draft strategy certainly reflected that.
This team building approach is the major catalyst that took the Orioles from a 110-loss season in 2021 to now on track for 90+ wins and a playoff berth two years later. There’s plenty of reason to think the franchise can continue to target the best college bats available and those picks will sustain the minor league system as the first four Elias draft classes graduate to Baltimore. Staying the course when it comes to the draft would not be a bad thing.
However, the 2023 draft practically begs the question as to whether this is the year Elias & Co. begin to deviate—to freshen things up, if you will. After all, gone is the streak of four consecutive top five picks. In fact, the Orioles selection at No. 17 this year is the lowest they’ve selected in the first round since taking DL Hall at No. 21 in the 2017 draft. Elias may again be moved (at least partially) by necessity, as the premier collegiate bats he’s known to covet may not last until the back half of the first round.
Currently on the mock draft circuit, writers are routinely mocking Florida right-hander Hurston Waldrep to the O’s at the 17th pick. Perfect Game’s latest mock has the O’s selecting Arizona outfielder Chase Davis. Another mock has Baltimore taking TCU third baseman Brayden Taylor. Wherever you look, it’s not hard to find draft media suggesting the Orioles front office will continue to look to the college ranks for their newest crop of prospects.
However, with the current logjam for playing time in Baltimore and the glut of major league ready prospects, now might be the perfect time for Elias to pivot. The likes of Cowser, Kjerstad, Mayo, Connor Norby, Dylan Beavers and others continue to get closer to not just knocking on the door that separates the minors from Baltimore—but knocking it off the hinges altogether. It’s far from ludicrous to think that by 2024 or 2025 season, the Orioles could have a lineup composed entirely of homegrown talent—and that lineup will be one of the best in baseball.
By beginning to invest in high school talent with intriguing upside, the O’s front office can bring in a group of minor league players operating on a completely different timeline to prospects we’ve come to know and love. These teenagers would not be competing right away to make it to the majors in two or three years, but rather provide the next wave of talent if/when the Orioles are forced to make tough decisions on which of their homegrown stars they’re able to retain. And after all, success stories like Gunnar and Mayo prove that this front office is still pretty good at coming away winners when they wade into the murky waters of high school player scouting.
One of the few prep prospects that mock drafts have linked to the Orioles is Vienna, VA’s Bryce Eldridge. A towering prospect at 6’7”, Eldridge is a two-way player who profiles as a middle of the order power hitter and/or a flame throwing righty with an above average slider. While that an intriguing combo and his overall upside may mean that Eldridge doesn’t last to the O’s pick at 17, this is the type of prospect the front office should begin to target. There are plenty of raw high school talents out there that, given the right nurturing, could blossom into stars—and the Orioles organization has already proven more than capable of providing that nurturing.
There’s also a strong argument that the front office should start transitioning away from hitters altogether and use their draft capital to bolster the organization’s pitching depth. However, if Elias’ draft record is clear on anything it is that he doesn’t value the idea of loading up on pitchers. After all, of the nine pitchers in Baltimore’s top 30 prospects, only three are Elias draft picks, and only Seth Johnson (acquired from Tampa Bay) drafted before the fifth round.
There is hope, however, that 2023 is the year we see a shift in this front office’s approach to their draft picks. Picking in a completely new range, with a new sense of calm and security radiating from the major league team and upper minors, now is the time to become bold with their picks. Elias’ draft record up to this point is about as perfect as you can expect to be in baseball. While branching deeper into the high school ranks could end up sullying that record slightly, it could also provide the O’s with the players to make sure the minor league pipeline never runs dry.
What position group should the Orioles target with the No. 17 pick?
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High school hitter
High school pitcher