Growing up in Texas, Brandon Young dreamed of pitching at Minute Maid Park, home of the Houston Astros. So, when they were the first team to call with a contract offer after the Louisiana-Lafayette right-hander went unselected in the shortened 2020 Major League Baseball draft, Young reminded himself he had calls with other clubs scheduled that Sunday.
As part of a process he equated to “a college recruitment in one day,” Young’s decision came down to three teams, with the Astros at times a front-runner. But reaching Minute Maid Park required reaching the majors, and no organization did a better job of convincing Young it could help him do that than the Orioles.
“They made it seem like they wanted me,” Young said, “and made it seem like they knew what to do to help me improve.”
Young is one of seven players still in the Orioles’ organization after signing as undrafted free agents following the 2020 draft, which was truncated from 40 rounds to five amid the coronavirus pandemic. That allowed players like Young, who likely would have been picked within the top 10 rounds of a normal draft, to instead field offers from any major league franchise.
The players, who all had the option of returning to school for another season in hopes of being picked in a normal draft, could sign for no more than $20,000, far beneath the typical six-figure bonus slots afforded to draftees of their talent levels. But through Zoom presentations and phone calls focused on the development they could offer, the Orioles made that amount seem more than worthwhile for the chance to chase their dreams in their top-ranked farm system.
“I really just wanted a shot, an opportunity,” right-hander Ryan Watson said. “I wasn’t a very talked-about, highly touted player. I had a solid college career, but I wasn’t the face of college baseball or anything like some of my teammates were. I just really wanted an opportunity to get into pro ball and show what I can really do, and the Orioles blessed me with that opportunity, so I’m trying to take full advantage of it.”
‘That was a grind’
Young, who Baseball America ranked as Baltimore’s No. 32 prospect entering the 2022 season, was not alone in comparing the post-draft experience with what he went through as a high schooler trying to pick a college team. It provided a familiarity to the process, though it didn’t necessarily feature a comparison of facilities or other factors that might have been considered when choosing a school.
“It was like, ‘Hey, we’re this. Everyone’s offering the same amount of money. What’s it going to take?’” Young said.
Teams such as the Orioles, though, were in largely unfamiliar territory. Undrafted free-agent signings were common in previous years, but they involved players who weren’t taken in 40-plus rounds, not five. With the quality of talent increased, the effort carried far greater importance.
“Boy, man, that was a grind,” Orioles director of draft operations Brad Ciolek recalled. “You just get done with the draft, even though it was a shortened one, and now all of a sudden, there’s a whole new pool of players, and you’re more or less fighting over the same guys with 29 other clubs.
“I’m glad that we don’t have to go through that again.”
Ciolek, though, is pleased with the results. Collectively, the pitchers from that group entered Wednesday’s minor league games with a 3.65 ERA this year, while the position players have an aggregate .781 OPS over the past two seasons. Outfielder Dylan Harris reached Triple-A before any of the Orioles’ 2020 draft picks, though his offensive struggles there prompted a return to Double-A Bowie, where three other members of the class — Young, Watson and first baseman J.D. Mundy — are assigned.
First baseman TT Bowens represents the group at High-A Aberdeen, with right-handers Shane Davis and Thomas Girard in Low-A Delmarva. Watson, who began his season with 13 scoreless, two-hit innings and has a 3.05 ERA entering Thursday’s start, is among the system’s breakout pitchers this season, while Bowens has an .878 OPS over the past month.
Ciolek said the Orioles’ amateur scouts and draft analysts identified players who they would be interested in adding should they be bypassed in the draft’s five rounds. That list was then shared with the player development staff and coaches, both to receive their feedback and for them to add any players who would be worth taking a look at. A brief dead period followed the draft before teams were allowed to contact players, at which point the Orioles provided them with presentations that detailed how they could fit into and grow with the organization.
“When you’re a guy that, rightfully so, would be drafted in any normal season without the shortened draft,” Ciolek said, “you want to hear some things like that, saying, ‘Hey, even though you weren’t drafted, we feel really good about what you bring to the table, and here’s how we can fully weaponize you and ultimately get you to the potential that we think you’re capable of reaching.’
“The process in itself, even though it was daunting and exhausting, it seems like everything worked out well.”
‘Play the same game’
Young recalled speaking with Orioles director of pitching Chris Holt and executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias, among others. On the hitting site, meetings included director of player development Matt Blood, head of strength and performance Nick White, and minor league hitting coordinators Ryan Fuller and Anthony Villa.
The purpose was to preach the Orioles’ blossoming and reconstructed player development program, one that led to improved pitching throughout the system in 2019 and had similar gains in mind for hitters in 2020 before the pandemic struck. The staff told players not only what Baltimore liked about them, but also where they felt they could improve and how the organization, through its coaches, training staffs and technology, would help them do so.
“We just showed them who we are,” Blood said, “and we showed them that they would be a good fit with us.”
By and large, the players said they felt that what they heard from the Orioles during those pitches has lived up their experience as minor leaguers. Watson said he’s experienced “constant development.” Mundy said he’s become more athletic and a better defender. Young has gained an understanding of why he’s always had success with his fastball and how to get his breaking balls to similar level.
“Whatever they’re preaching, it’s working,” Young said.
That’s welcome news to those involved in the meetings.
“We don’t want to be used car salesmen, just trying to tell them all the great things up front,” Fuller said. “We want to live it every single day.”
With sweat dripping down his face after an intense batting practice session at Aberdeen’s Ripken Stadium, Bowens said he knew going in what his experience with the organization would be like. As an amateur, he trained with Fuller, now one of Baltimore’s major league hitting coaches, in their native Connecticut and experienced a similar training program to what the Orioles use for hitters throughout their system now. When his redshirt junior season at Central Connecticut State got cut short and Fuller said the Orioles were open to signing him, Bowens decided to forgo his remaining two years of college eligibility and start his professional career.
In doing so, Bowens denied himself the opportunity to eventually be drafted, something he and all other players in that 2020 class worked for their entire lives. Bowie manager Kyle Moore, who began his professional playing career as an undrafted free agent, said “there’s always a little chip on your shoulder” when the selection process passes without you being chosen.
But the players the Orioles signed said that even if they had those types of feelings initially, they’ve mostly since passed, replaced with gratitude that their careers could continue despite the worldwide circumstances that marred their draft year.
“You always want to hear your name called, but I feel like we all get the same opportunity,” Harris said. “I attack every day as if I’m just as good as the guys that got drafted. It really doesn’t hold me back.”
After having their seasons cut short two years ago and going undrafted, all they wanted was a chance. With the Orioles, they’ve found it.
“You could look at it like, ‘OK, I went undrafted, that sucks,’ or I could look at it as like, ‘I have an opportunity to go and play pro ball and prove myself,’” Bowens said. “That was the way I took it, and that’s the way I still choose to take it.
“At the end of the day, I get to go out on the same field as everybody else and play the same game. If I’m meant to be here, then I’m meant to be here.”