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In Mike Elias’ first four seasons as Orioles executive vice president/general manager, the team had the first pick in the draft twice, the second pick once and the fifth once. That meant Elias had a very good idea of who the Orioles would take in the draft.
Things are different now. The Orioles won 83 games last year, and they’re leading the American League wild-card race this year. Instead of picking first as they did last season, they’ll pick 17th.
In the last four years, Elias spent plenty of time scouting, looking at the top high school and college players, knowing he could absolutely, positively draft one of them.
Now, he’s really not sure who the Orioles will take with that 17th selection on Sunday night.
“When we’re picking as low as we are, there’s just so much uncertainty about who’s going to be there,” Elias said on Thursday in a Zoom conference call. “In the past when we were picking in the top five or number one overall, your list by about this time from draft day, your list is probably paired down to five players or so.
“For us, I would say we’re looking at more the 10-to-12 range of guys that we either (a) are considering or (b) think we have a realistic chance of surviving to 17, which is a much wider net of players to deep dive on.”
That means it’s not an effective use of Elias’ time to watch as many players as often as he did in those years.
“I did do it this year. I think I’ve seen between eight and 10 players personally, but if I’m being honest, I’m not sure that I’m moving the needle much in the process,” he said. “When we were picking really high, the top five selections that we had, I spent as much time as possible for the right players for those selections because of the weight of the decision but also it’s possible for a general manager to go see those players five times apiece or whatever is necessary to really sink your teeth into it. Just with the uncertainty surrounding who’s actually going to be in play in pick 17, it’s not possible.”
Last year, the Orioles were linked with a handful of players before settling on high school shortstop Jackson Holliday with the first overall pick. Holliday will play in Saturday’s Futures Game in Seattle along with the second overall pick in the 2020 draft, outfielder Heston Kjerstad.
This year, because Elias couldn’t spend as much time on the Orioles’ pick, he may not have seen the player they’ll ultimately choose.
“On top of it, our major league team is at a much more night-to-night active, competitive stance than it has been the previous drafts and it just hasn’t made sense for me to go out there and hit the road full time,” Elias said. “I trust our scouting staff and our analytics department and all the people in the front office that make these selections. If I’m out there dabbling with the 17th overall pick, it can possibly cause more harm than good. I go out there to see the players, meet their parents to get some feel for their situation, but these have not been multiple looks or in-depth looks on my part this year.”
Under Elias, the Orioles haven’t used a high pick on pitching. Last year, in the third round, they selected Oklahoma State pitcher Nolan McLean with the 81st overall pick, and he was the highest drafted player not to sign.
With a lack of top-shelf pitching in their system, could this be the year that the Orioles go for a pitcher in the first round?
“I wouldn’t handicap either way,” Elias said. “We have candidates for the 17th pick that are pitchers. We have many that are not pitchers. I think it’s going to depend on who the very top magnet on our board is when that pick rolls around. We’ll call them and make sure they’re signable and it could be a hitter. It could be a pitcher. Clearly, we’ve poured a lot of our considerable draft resources into position players since this group has been here. I think we’ve chosen wisely with those guys.
“We’re obviously mindful of the need to furnish a quality major league pitching staff to go with these position players, but we’re not just going to force it through the draft. We think that the draft picks have an inherent value that are of a particular value to the Orioles, and we shouldn’t be drafting for need.”
In 2021, the Orioles picked Carlos Tavera from University of Texas at Arlington in the fifth round. The year before, they picked Iowa high school pitcher Carter Baumler in the fifth. Last year, Trace Bright from Auburn was taken in the fifth round.
“We’ve gotten some interesting pitchers with the fourth- and fifth-round picks that we’ve used on them so far, but obviously if you use higher draft picks on pitchers, you’re going to get your more interesting pitchers than that if you use your picks well,” Elias said. “We know that. I just don’t know how it’s going to translate into this year’s draft other than we’re trying to get the very most out of every one of these picks.”
With the addition of outfielder Colton Cowser this week, the Orioles are featuring four top picks in their lineup—catcher Adley Rutschman (1st overall in 2019), infielder Gunnar Henderson (second round, 2019), infielder Jordan Westburg (30th overall pick in 2020) and Cowser (fifth overall pick in 2021).
“I think we are pleased so far from the results of our draft picks,” Elias said. “We’re not going to rest on our laurels or act like there’s no some degree of good luck involved. Any time you get a good draft pick, and these guys are just starting their careers, we’ll see where it goes. Making the majors is not the end all of a successful draft pick. When we look at it, we’ve got a sound process in place in the draft.
“The results are certainly at a level of reflecting some help to our draft process. You can’t understate the player development end of that, too. These guys have moved along and performed in the minors, and they’re not the same exact players they were on draft day.
“They’ve gotten healthy coaching and healthy character building in the minor leagues, and that’s not always the case when you sign with an organization. I am happy with the fruits of our pipeline here for the last four or five years, but I’m also somebody that is paranoid about falling behind. We’re going to continue to try to maintain an edge in everything we do in scouting and player development.”
Hays to start All-Star Game: With Aaron Judge and Mike Trout injured, Austin Hays will start for the American League in Tuesday night’s All-Star Game in Seattle. Hays will be the first Oriole to start since Cedric Mullins replaced an injured Trout in 2021.
Hays, who suffered a bruised left hip in last Sunday’s game with Minnesota, hasn’t played since but hopes to play this weekend in Minneapolis against the Twins.
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