Major League Baseball’s 2019 first-year player draft will begin Monday evening at 7 p.m. ET. The draft will pause after the first two rounds are completed, then resume on Tuesday until the completion of the 10th round. Teams will finish out the 40-round event on Wednesday. The Baltimore Orioles hold the first overall pick for the second time in their franchise history, and new general manager Mike Elias and company have done well to conceal their intent.
For much of the buildup to the draft, the expectation was that the Orioles would pick Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman. Widely considered the best player in the draft, Rutschman is a switch-hitter with a good mitt who scouts believe has the potential for four plus tools. Yet a MLB.com report on Sunday suggested others within the industry believe the Orioles will take someone else — be it Cal first baseman Andrew Vaughn or Vanderbilt outfielder J.J. Bleday:
Now, about 24 hours before the first pick is announced, there is some buzz that the Orioles will not be taking the switch-hitting backstop. High-level scouts from two different teams picking later in the first round were insistent that Baltimore is not planning on taking Rutschman.
Whether or not this report proves to be a false alarm — or, perhaps, an 11th-hour negotiating ploy — is to be determined. We figured we would lay out some potential explanations for why the Orioles would use the No. 1 pick on anyone but Rutschman.
1. Evaluative differences
Baseball is a large industry. Try hard enough and you can almost always find someone whose opinion on a player clashes with the norm. Sometimes, that someone runs a team.
There’s no way of knowing how the Orioles feel about Rutschman (or anyone else in the draft) just yet. But there is always room for disagreement on individual players — be it in judging the hit tool (the most important part of the evaluative process), or having a more conservative read on a player’s underlying skills. With a backstop, that might mean the team’s internal analytics don’t consider him a good framer. That isn’t the case with Rutschman, per other teams’ evaluations, but algorithms and emphasis can differ — even in this era of big data baseball.
By the same token, it’s possible the Orioles have a higher opinion of Vaughn or Bleday than the industry standard. It doesn’t take much imagination to dream up a scenario where the Orioles prefer Vaughn because they believe he can play a more important position than first base — which, in turn, would alleviate some concerns about his height and overall value.
Keep in mind that the Orioles don’t have an official scouting director. Rather, the department has been led by assistant director Brad Ciolek, a holdover from the Dan Duquette regime, with Elias seemingly taking a hands-on approach. Elias was once the scouting director for the Houston Astros, who rely heavily on quantitative analysis to inform their preference lists, so it stands to reason he’ll do the same in Baltimore.
If for some reason Elias’ formulas don’t value Rutschman as the No. 1 player, then he probably won’t be the No. 1 pick.
2. It’s the money
Sticking with the math theme, it’s possible the Orioles elect to take someone other than Rutschman for financial purposes. Elias has more than $13 million to hand out as part of the game’s second-largest bonus pool. He also has four selections in the top-80, and could elect to take a portfolio approach as a means of injecting life into the Baltimore farm system.
What we mean by that is Elias could take Vaughn or Bleday with the understanding that they’ll require less money to sign than Rutschman would — presumably around the $8.4 million slot value assigned to the top pick. The savings could then be used to sign a player who slips in the draft due to perceived signability issues. To put it another way, the Orioles would be trying to land two of the top 30 (or whatever) talents instead of two of the top 40 (or whatever).
There’s risk in that approach, too — especially if the Orioles do believe Rutschman is the top player in the draft — but it’s a strategy the Astros embraced during Elias’s time there, and it’s one that scouts have suggested he could look to take here as well.
3. Health concerns
The most boring explanation is that the Orioles are weary of Rutschman’s medicals.
Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel have noted on FanGraphs that Rutschman dealt with a bruised leg last year and had some shoulder woes that prevented him from playing quarterback in high school. Those wouldn’t seem to be issues now, at a time when he’s been under the microscope with this day in mind, but so it goes.
We’ve referenced Elias’ past with the Astros in the other subheadings, so let’s go ahead and do that here, too. Remember, the Astros walked away from Brady Aiken due to an abnormality with his ulnar collateral ligament. Aiken has since suffered setbacks, physically and otherwise, that have dimmed his prospects at becoming a big-league starter.
That isn’t to say Elias and crew were vindicated — it’s merely to say he’s probably comfortable making a controversial decision based on medical evaluations.