After the Orioles selected Oklahoma high school shortstop Jackson Holliday with the Major League Baseball draft’s first overall pick Sunday night, area scout Ken Guthrie donned a better-kept version of the team’s home run chain, acknowledging his involvement in a decision the organization felt it hit out of the park.
As Baltimore made each of its next 21 picks during the three-day draft, the chain made its way from scout to scout, much as the one that spends games in the Orioles’ dugout — with links held together by duct tape and zip ties — goes from player to player after home runs. As much as the major league team enjoyed its surprising first half of the season, the Orioles’ amateur scouting department savored the opportunity to restock the talent in the organization’s lower rungs.
“We’re a very laid back, relaxed group,” Orioles director of draft operations Brad Ciolek said. “We love working together, whether it’s our analysts or our scouts, and it’s been a tremendous ride, the last four drafts with [executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias and assistant general manager of analytics Sig Mejdal] on board. We’re a pretty relaxed casual group.
“We have a lot of fun. We enjoy it.”
Those good times came as Baltimore made a collection of picks that are in some ways different than previous years but still feature the same types of players they have targeted since Elias took over the baseball operations department in November 2018.
Here are three takeaways from the Orioles’ 2022 draft:
Possibly the last time for a while
Holliday marked the fourth straight top-five pick Elias has made in Baltimore, and there’s hope there won’t be another anytime soon.
The Orioles ended the first half 46-46, leaving them with the 13th-worst record in baseball. In previous years, being in that spot at the end of the season would mean they would receive the 13th overall pick in the 2023 draft, but with MLB instituting a draft lottery for the first six picks, it’s possible they still find their way near the top of the board without a dramatic drop-off. All 18 teams who miss the playoffs will be part of the lottery, though those in the better half have less than a 2% chance of getting the top pick.
With the Orioles seemingly turning a corner and the products of these recent drafts pushing for major league opportunities, the only reason Baltimore should pick near the top of the draft in upcoming years is luck rather than poor on-field play.
That said, a later pick won’t change how the club operates. The Orioles will still target position players who profile up the middle, hit the ball hard and don’t swing-and-miss much. They’ll seek pitchers who generate those whiffs and have a pitch or two the Orioles believe can play against major league hitters, at least with some refinement. They will simply have to target them later in the first round and have a smaller bonus pool to work with throughout the draft.
“For me, it’s always kind of been similar year in, year out, regardless of how the major league club is doing,” Ciolek said.
Draft board at last aligns for pitching
There’s a perception the Orioles have avoided drafting pitchers under Elias, but that’s not true. While they picked 12 pitchers with this week’s 22 selections, the highest number through 20 rounds in this front office’s four drafts, it’s not a runaway total. They took nine pitchers last year and 10 in the first half of the 2019 draft, which was the last to feature 40 rounds.
What was notable this year is how early they took them, with Baltimore’s five Day 2 pitchers surpassing the number they selected in the first 10 rounds of the previous three drafts combined. (It’s worth noting the 2020 draft was only five rounds amid the coronavirus pandemic.)
This Orioles regime has long been clear that, in their estimation, pitchers carry more risk than position players. Elias said recently “there are myriad avenues for bringing [major league] pitchers in.” If you’re as worried about an overabundance of position players as a lack of pitching, there are likely trades to come that will balance the scales.
The organization targets pitchers with certain traits, particularly one or two weapons within their arsenal the Orioles believe they can maximize through player development. For example, Ciolek points to “hop on the fastball, sweep on the slider or depth on the curveball.” Strikeouts, and thus the ability to generate swings-and-misses, have always been the most front-facing stat to pay attention to.
In recent drafts, the Orioles haven’t taken many pitchers either because there’s a hitter they prefer or because an arm they were possibly targeting was chosen only picks earlier. There wasn’t a change in their approach to pitching this year, Ciolek said. It’s simply how the board panned out.
“It’s always kind of been the luck of the draw here,” Ciolek said.
The word “signability” hasn’t been thrown around often in regards to Elias’ Orioles. The only picks they didn’t sign in the first three drafts were high schoolers taken in 2019′s 34th through 40th rounds.
They’ve been precise in their efforts to “maximize the draft,” as Elias has frequently put it, and that requires signing every player taken through the 10th round, as they would otherwise lose that pick’s slot value from their bonus pool. The most notable example came in 2014 when Elias was the Houston Astros’ amateur scouting director. The club was unable to sign first overall pick Brady Aiken, and that led to Houston not having enough pool space to finalize an agreed-upon overslot deal with fifth-rounder Jacob Nix.
With the second-largest pool in modern draft history following the 2015 Astros — who had two top-five picks as a result of not signing Aiken — the Orioles will want to capitalize on this year’s crop, and there’s little about their dozen picks through 10 rounds that suggests their pool is at risk.
But in an effort to fully take advantage of the opportunity, the Orioles are taking a chance when it comes to signing three of their Day 3 picks. Right-hander Zack Showalter, their 11th-rounder, was the only high school player they selected besides Holliday; the Florida native is committed to the University of South Florida. Shortstop Carter Young was viewed as a potential first-rounder coming out of an impressive first full season for Vanderbilt, and despite struggles in 2022, Baseball America had him among the top 200 players available. The future LSU transfer lasted until Baltimore took him in the 17th round. One pick later, the Orioles took Miami (Fla.) closer Andrew Walters, who Baseball America and MLB Pipeline ranked as worthy of the first four rounds.
It’s not clear how much flexibility the Orioles will have to sign these players, who along with all other Tuesday draftees can sign for up to $125,000 without counting against the bonus pool. Holliday isn’t expected to receive the full $8.85 million or so slot but could still exceed $8 million. Preston Johnson, a senior right-hander out of Mississippi State not ranked in Baseball America’s top 500 draft prospects, went 197th overall in the seventh round, and it’s doubtful his bonus approaches his $249,200 slot value.
Ciolek acknowledged that it could be difficult for the Orioles to go 22-for-22 after signing all of their picks in the past two drafts. Teams have until Aug. 1 to sign draftees.
“Obviously, the intent is a sign all these guys,” he said. “That’s what we’re hoping to do. … If you were asking me if I’m optimistic we’re gonna sign all of them, I’m probably not as optimistic as I would have been in years past, but obviously the intent is to sign each and every one of these guys because we do want them in the system. That’s why we took them.”
Not getting deals done would not be inherently damning, as Showalter heading to USF or Young or Walters heading back to school wouldn’t affect the Orioles’ pool. But signing them adds potential impact talent to a system constantly looking for it. In that sense, these selections come with relatively low risk and possibly high reward, something teams are always seeking in the draft.