The Orioles completed their 2019 first-year player draft last week, and the bulk of the attention has been focused on the top picks, particularly No. 1 overall selection Adley Rutschman.
That’s the nature of the draft. The top prospects and budding stars, with occasional exceptions, are usually found in the first few rounds. As the draft stretches on, teams tend to select lower-tier players, often college seniors, who have limited upside and will likely top out as minor league roster fillers.
The second half of the draft, in particular, is usually light on future big leaguers. The lowest drafted Orioles player ever to make it to the big club was right-hander Oliver Drake, who was picked in the 43rd round in 2008. That round doesn’t even exist anymore; the draft was shortened to 40 rounds beginning in 2012.
In the 54-year history of the draft, only 18 players who were drafted by the Orioles in the 21st round or later have worked their way up to the big club for at least one game. (That excludes players who didn’t sign and were later re-drafted by the Orioles in a higher round.) Of those, the best career Wins Above Replacement as an Oriole belongs to outfielder Rich Coggins (4.6), a 21st-round pick in 1968. Nobody else in that group has topped 1.5 WAR.
Still, these late-rounders can play a valuable role in the organization. Even if most of them aren’t bound for the bigs, a few have emerged as key contributors to their minor league clubs. Let’s take a look at some Orioles late-round draftees who are having standout seasons in 2019.
For the purposes of this story, we’ll focus on players who were drafted in the back half of the draft — the 21st round or later. But an honorable mention goes to Frederick outfielder Cole Billingsley, a 19th round pick in 2016, who leads his club with a .339 and .412 on-base percentage in 32 games.
Bowie LHP Tyler Erwin (drafted in 23rd round in 2016)
If there’s one late-round pick who seems the closest to contributing in the major leagues, it’s Erwin, a New Mexico State alum who has put up strong numbers during his steady climb through the Orioles’ organization.
Erwin, 24, spent one year each at short-season Aberdeen, Low-A Delmarva and High-A Frederick, improving his ERA at each stop, and led all Orioles minor leaguers with 18 saves for the Keys in 2018. This year, Erwin ascended to Double-A Bowie, where he’s currently the lowest-drafted player on the roster — and one of the most effective. Erwin, the Baysox closer, is seven for eight in save opportunities and sports a 2.63 ERA. In 18 of his 22 appearances, he’s allowed no earned runs.
A soft-tossing lefty, Erwin relies on his command and a deceptive delivery to rack up outs. He’s averaged better than a strikeout per inning during his minor league career, and he’s particularly adept at keeping the ball on the ground, having allowed only two home runs in 161 2/3 professional innings. That makes his repertoire a good fit for homer-friendly Camden Yards, should Erwin make it to Baltimore someday.
Considering his bloodlines, perhaps Erwin is destined to someday appear on a national stage. He’s the great-great-great nephew of former president James K. Polk.
Frederick OF Zach Jarrett (28th round, 2017)
Speaking of notable bloodlines, Jarrett comes from one of the most accomplished families in professional sports. His father, Dale, and grandfather, Ned, were both champions on the NASCAR circuit, and the former was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2014.
Zach Jarrett’s path has taken him to a different sport, one in which he’s had success so far. His breakout season came last year with Delmarva, when he led the Shorebirds in hits (139), home runs (14) and slugging percentage (.437) and tied for first in runs (74) and RBIs (72). That earned the 24-year-old a promotion to Frederick this season, where he’s batting .281 with a .786 OPS. Jarrett also spent a 20-game stint at Bowie earlier this year, but hit just .194 before returning to the Keys.
At both stops, Jarrett hasn’t been the only member of his club with a superstar athlete for a father. At Frederick, he shares the field with first baseman Ryan Ripken, son of Orioles legend Cal. And during Jarrett’s brief time at Bowie, Preston Palmeiro — son of former Oriole Rafael — was among his teammates.
Frederick IF Willy Yahn (25th round, 2017)
Yahn, a University of Connecticut standout, didn’t make much noise in his first two stops in the Orioles’ system. Last year for Aberdeen, he managed only a .624 OPS with no home runs in 65 games.
Since moving up to Frederick this year, though, Yahn has taken a leap forward, thanks to some newfound power. He’s hit the first five home runs of his professional career, and also has a career-best 13 doubles, leading to more than a 130-point jump in his slugging percentage over last season. Yahn leads the Keys with 56 hits, 32 RBIs and 84 total bases.
Yahn, 23, has earned the reputation as a scrappy player who isn’t afraid to get his uniform dirty. That alone won’t get him to the majors. But putting up solid offensive numbers might. And even if Yahn’s baseball career doesn’t pan out, he might have a future as a writer. He regularly updates a personal blog about his life in the minor leagues.
The Delmarva bullpen
The Shorebirds, who currently boast the best record in professional baseball at 46-16, can credit their astounding success largely to their pitching staff, which holds the best ERA in the South Atlantic League. And while the prospect-studded rotation fronted by Grayson Rodriguez has gotten the most attention, Delmarva’s bullpen has done solid work as well, led by a quintet of late-round picks.
Right-handers Tim Naughton, Matt De La Rosa and Tyler Joyner and lefties Matthew Hammonds and Zach Matson are the Shorebirds’ top five leaders in appearances. Each was drafted in the 24th round or later, and each has posted an ERA of 3.06 or better this year.
All five have at least one save, but the primary closer has been Naughton, a 34th-round selection from N.C. State in 2017. Naughton, who mixes a fastball and slider, has been groomed as a late-inning reliever since he was drafted. At short-season Aberdeen in 2017, he recorded seven saves, then notched five more in 24 appearances for Delmarva last season. This year, Naughton, 23, has been a lockdown ninth-inning force. He’s converted 12 of his 13 save attempts, working to a 3.00 ERA while striking out 41 batters in 27 innings.
Hammonds, a 29th-round pick from Sonoma State in 2017, has served mainly in a long relief role this year; 11 of his 16 appearances have been two innings or longer. The 24-year-old’s ability to eat innings after short exits from starters has been integral to a few Shorebirds wins. On April 16, for instance, Hammonds worked three perfect innings of relief against Kannapolis, holding the line long enough for Delmarva to mount a game-winning rally in the eighth. His ERA for the Shorebirds is 2.16.
Joyner, 23, is the vulture of the crew, picking up five victories in relief while also saving five games. Joyner, in fact, was the winning pitcher in each of his first four appearances, the first two of which were scoreless outings of three or more innings. Like Hammonds, Joyner has been an innings-eater from the bullpen, going multiple innings 13 times in 18 games. His ERA sits at 2.64, and he’s racked up 50 strikeouts in 44 1/3 innings. The Orioles drafted Joyner from the University of North Alabama in the 30th round last year.
De La Rosa, at 25, is the oldest player on the Shorebirds’ active roster. Though he was primarily a shortstop when drafted out of Lenoir-Rhyne in the 28th round in 2016, the Orioles converted De La Rosa to the mound. The 2019 season is his first with a full-season affiliate, and he’s more than held his own, posting a 3.06 ERA in 19 games for Delmarva.
The most dominant of the relief corps is Matson, a 24th-rounder in 2016 from Crowder Community College, who last week was one of eight Shorebirds named to the South Atlantic All-Star Team. With his numbers, it’s not hard to see why. The 23-year-old curveball specialist, who didn’t make his Delmarva season debut until April 18, carries a superb 1.42 ERA and leads Shorebirds relievers with 54 strikeouts, averaging more than 15 per nine innings. He’s been scored upon in only two of his 15 appearances and has allowed fewer than one baserunner per inning. During one six-outing stretch from May 5 to May 22, Matson tossed 13 straight scoreless innings, with more than three times as many strikeouts (25) as baserunners (eight).
Matson seems poised for a promotion to Frederick soon, and he might not be the only one of this group to advance to the next level this season. These late-rounders will continue to try to buck the odds and set their sights on a major league future.