For someone who has been involved in this position as often as anyone in baseball, Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias is not a huge fan.
“It’s a heck of a thing, picking 1-1,” Elias said last week. “I don’t really like doing it.”
Having the first overall pick in the Major League Baseball draft, as the Orioles do Sunday, means having the league’s worst record the previous season — although that will change in 2023 as part of the lottery system under the new collective bargaining agreement. The Orioles technically tied the Arizona Diamondbacks with the majors’ worst record at 52-110 in 2021, but received the top choice because they had a worse record in 2019. (The clubs had matching 25-35 records during the shortened 2020 season.)
There’s also the element of pressure applied to both the team and player in that spot. Elias is certainly familiar with it.
He was in the amateur scouting department of the Houston Astros’ front office when they made three straight No. 1 selections from 2012 to 2014, and when he became Baltimore’s GM in November 2018, he inherited the 2019 top pick that became catcher Adley Rutschman. This year’s first overall pick marks the ninth top-five draft choice Elias has been connected to in 11 years of the modern draft system.
Before Elias and the Orioles open the league’s 20-round draft, here’s what you need to know.
The Orioles enter draft day with five players in consideration, Elias and director of draft operations Brad Ciolek have said. They haven’t revealed who those players are, but the group is believed to be the same quintet atop most public rankings of draft prospects: Georgia high school outfielder Druw Jones, Florida high school infielder Termarr Johnson, Oklahoma high school infielder Jackson Holliday, Florida high school outfielder Elijah Green and Cal Poly shortstop Brooks Lee.
Jones and Holliday are the sons of former MLB All-Stars Andruw Jones and Matt Holliday, while Green’s father, Eric Green, spent a decade in the NFL, including three years with the Ravens. Jones is considered the top prospect in the class, ranked first in most public rankings, but several betting sites have Lee as the favorite to go to Baltimore. All of Elias’ first-round picks with the Orioles have been college position players.
“We don’t expect there’s going to be a broad consensus in every corner of the organization of who to take … but we’ll have somebody that everyone’s happy with,” Elias said. “I think there’s enough consensus around how good these players are that I can’t imagine there will be too many frowns about it in our scouting department or in our analytics department or whatever when we make the pick.”
The Orioles have used recent days to do makeup work on various players available throughout the draft, talking to coaches, teammates, teachers and others in their lives, while also getting insights from the club’s scouting and analytics departments. From there, it’s about ordering their draft board.
“The one thing that stands out is the depth of talent at the top of the class,” Ciolek said. “This reminds me very much of the 2019 class with Adley Rutschman and Bobby Witt, Andrew Vaughn, Riley Greene, a lot of guys that are showing their talents at the major league level right now, so it’s certainly a good year to pick at the top of the draft class.”
The only team that’s had a larger signing bonus pool in this draft format than the Orioles’ nearly $17 million allotment this year was the 2015 Astros, who had two of the first five picks. Elias was Houston’s amateur scouting director.
Baltimore has the first pick in each round, as well as competitive balance picks at 33rd and 67th overall, the latter acquired in a trade with the Miami Marlins. The Orioles have five of the first 81 selections.
Each pick in the first 10 rounds of the draft is assigned a slot value, with each team’s pool representing the combined total of those figures. Teams are able to give draftees bonuses above or below their respective slot values so long as the aggregate amount doesn’t exceed their pool. The only penalty for going less than 5% above the pool is an overage tax, while anything higher than that prompts lost draft picks. Any bonus beyond $125,000 given to a player taken after the 10th round also counts toward the pool.
This year’s No. 1 pick has a slot value of $8.842 million.
“This is an enormous opportunity,” Elias said. “It’s a big financial commitment. We’re going to have a lot of possibilities because of the picks that we have and the finances and the way the system works with the overage tax.”
Each of the Orioles’ previous three first-round picks under Elias — Rutschman first overall in 2019, outfielder Heston Kjerstad second overall in 2020 and outfielder Colton Cowser fifth overall in 2021 — signed for beneath their slot value, with the Orioles able to direct those savings toward talented players chosen later who might have been difficult to sign otherwise. Taking Kjerstad and signing him for more than $2.5 million beneath slot value allowed the Orioles to draft and sign high school prospects Coby Mayo and Carter Baumler in the fourth and fifth rounds; Baseball America ranks the pair as Baltimore’s fifth- and 19th-best prospects.
Still, that execution has led to suspicions the Orioles won’t take the player outwardly viewed as the best available, but instead the one with whom they can get the best deal. Elias has not necessarily dissuaded that belief by noting the club will “try to extract the maximum possible value from this entire draft.”
But that also requires getting the player they viewed as the best option with their first pick.
“We take the player that we want to take and that we want to start our draft with and that we feel is going to kick off the maximization of the draft class,” Elias said. “Rest assured that we are going into any high pick that we have with the goal of maximizing the output of that pick itself.”
As you might have noticed with the group of five players thought to be in consideration, the Orioles won’t be taking a pitcher first overall.
Many of the top arms in this draft class got hurt in recent months, hampering their stock, but that doesn’t mean Baltimore won’t target them with others picks. The Orioles haven’t drafted a pitcher earlier than the fifth round under Elias, taking Baumler in 2020 and Carlos Tavera in 2021.
“We’re very cognizant of the fact we have not invested much draft capital in pitching, and I do think that’s reflected in our prospect list when you look at it,” Elias said. “But that doesn’t mean we’re not going to try to get good pitchers that will pitch for the major league Baltimore Orioles.”
He noted “there are myriad avenues for bringing those pitchers in.” Given their stockpile of young position players, it won’t be a surprise if the Orioles eventually trade a handful of them to supplement their pitching staff.
Baltimore has built that group of young hitters despite not taking a high school position player with its first pick since drafting star infielder Manny Machado third overall in 2010. Under this front office, college bats are prioritized, offering less risk and more available information than their high school counterparts.
“The one thing that we always kind of harp on is, and it’s becoming more prevalent now with high school players, there wasn’t as much data at the start, I would say three or four years ago, as there is now,” Ciolek said. “For us to feel really confident about a high school player, there has to be more or less some ‘now’ tools that we can kind of sink our teeth into — there has to be production — and also there has to be things that we can help them improve, some ceiling, so to speak.”
They feel the high school hitters they’ve drafted early, Gunnar Henderson and Darell Hernaiz in 2019 and Coby Mayo in 2020, match that description. By Sunday night, we’ll know whether they believe Jones, Johnson, Holliday or Green do, too.
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Lee, along with down-the-board options such as LSU infielder Jacob Berry and Chipola Junior College infielder Cam Collier, would represent the Orioles’ fourth straight first-round pick devoted to a college position player. Collier, a 17-year-old who earned his GED two years early, would join Bryce Harper as the only junior college players to go first overall.
2022 MLB DRAFT
Rounds 1-2: Sunday, 7 p.m.
Rounds 3-10: Monday, 2 p.m.
Rounds 11-20: Tuesday, 2 p.m.
TV/stream: ESPN, MLB Network, MLB.com