The Orioles’ fifth draft under general manager Mike Elias is different than the first four — that much hardly needs to be said. They’re picking 17th instead of in the top five. They’re in a playoff place instead of last place. And, four drafts into this, they’re so consistent in their approach and success rate that you can pretty well guess what’s going to happen.
I often think back to the first winter meetings of this front office’s tenure in December 2018, when Elias touted that he and assistant general manager Sig Mejdal were “brought here primarily for scouting and player development purposes” and that he believed their time in that space in St. Louis and Houston gave them “among the best track records in the industry.”
It’s pretty evident, with an unbelievably talented young core at the major league level to go with the game’s top farm system, that it played out here in Baltimore. That belief has led to consistency in applying what they feel are the best practices in the space, and this fifth draft is an opportunity to call out all the areas where they’ve succeeded. It’s taken a while for things to turn around for the Orioles, but this is an area they’ve excelled in throughout — and probably need to continue in if they want to support their major league ambitions.
The most obvious is their preference for hitters, particularly college hitters, with their first handful of picks. There are certain traits they seek in those college hitters — walk rate and slugging percentage specifically — to filter their preferences and make selections accordingly. It’s broadly paid off, with Adley Rutschman, Kyle Stowers, Joey Ortiz, Jordan Westburg and Colton Cowser all picked in the first five rounds as college hitters and having reached the majors, and Connor Norby and Heston Kjerstad performing well at Triple-A Norfolk. Their prep hitter selections have worked out even better — Gunnar Henderson and Jackson Holliday reached top prospect in the game status, and Coby Mayo is one of the hottest hitters in all the minors.
That’s come at the expense of early-round pitchers, which has meant the Orioles’ pitching program has been slower to deliver drafted talent to the majors than the hitting side, but there aren’t many obvious names they could have taken instead of those high-quality hitters that would suggest they should rethink their philosophy.
In 2019, pitchers went with five of the next 12 picks after the Orioles took Henderson 42nd overall. None has reached Triple-A. Left-hander Tommy Henry, taken three picks after the Orioles selected Kyle Stowers 71st overall, is pitching well in the Diamondbacks rotation and is one of two pitchers of the four taken between No. 71 and No. 79, where the Orioles picked outfielder Zach Watson, to reach the majors.
In 2020, three pitchers went in the top 10 after the Orioles took Kjerstad, all of whom could have been in the mix for their pick. Max Meyer went one pick later to the Marlins and has had a fine minor league career, reaching the majors this year. Left-hander Asa Lacy had the double misfortune of being drafted into the Royals’ pitching program and dealing with back injuries that have limited him to 80 professional innings, and he has not pitched in a game in 2023. Emerson Hancock went sixth to the Mariners and isn’t on any major prospect lists because he had to repeat Double-A this year.
Carmen Mlodzinski went one pick after the Orioles took Westburg 30th in that draft and is in the Pirates bullpen right now. Twenty pitchers went in the second round, after the Orioles took outfielder Hudson Haskin 39th overall. Only one — Cleveland starter Logan Allen — is in the majors. He seems pretty good. Only a handful of pitchers beyond that in that draft have made the majors, though the Orioles’ selection of Coby Mayo with the second pick of the fourth round will probably make that feel better — even if two of those arms to reach the majors are Braves rotation members Spencer Strider and Bryce Elder.
From the 2021 draft, a few first-round pitchers, including the Angels’ Sam Bachman and Cleveland’s Gavin Williams, have ascended to the majors quickly, though there are no quibbles with Cowser as the Orioles’ pick at No. 5 overall. The only pitcher to reach the majors in the second round — after the Orioles took Norby 41st overall — is left-hander Andrew Abbott of the Reds, selected 53rd overall.
That’s why people within the organization see mock drafts linking them to pitchers and wonder why anyone would make that connection. They’ve spent a lot of resources on hitting and done a good job developing that, creating a logjam of players in the high minors they can use for trades or to supplement their playoff push.
Continuing to use these valuable early picks on hitters will serve to sustain their farm system into the next wave of their competitive phase and come with an added benefit. If they move these hitters along quickly and have them producing in the high minors, they too become attractive to other teams who are looking to make a deal with the Orioles.
Pitching is attractive, too. They’ve gotten that later in the draft and have an impressive stable of arms in the mid-minors who project to pitch in the majors. But, for the Orioles to best sustain their success at the major league level, adhering to what helped them get here is the only logical way forward.
They might not need all these advanced college hitters they’ll take early in the draft to fill out their lineup at Camden Yards anymore. They’ll need a healthy farm system to support their ambitions, though, and how they’ve built one so far carrying on seems the sharpest way to sustain it.