For a rebuilding club like the Orioles, one of the most important events of the year is rapidly approaching: the 2021 MLB Draft. The 2021 MLB Draft will be held from July 11-13 and consist of 20 rounds. The Orioles have the fifth overall selection in the Draft and the fifth-largest bonus pool, with $11,829,300 to spend. The fifth pick is valued at $6,180,700.
With that as a backdrop, MLB.com chatted with MLB Pipeline Draft gurus Jim Callis and Jonathan Mayo to discuss the Orioles’ situation and how they might operate come Draft day. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
MLB.com: What type of Draft is this shaking out to be?
Callis: I think there's more uncertainty with this Draft than most. Part of that may be that it's a month later, so we feel less certain about it now than we would in a previous year when the Draft would have been over by now. But yeah, we have less track record on these guys, especially the college guys who really didn't have much of a 2020 season and then didn't have much in the way of summer ball, which is an important time to scout guys with wood bats.
And just like we've seen in the big leagues, there are a lot of guys struggling this year. Guys have come back from COVID-19 in different ways. Frankly, on the college side, a lot of the best college position players haven't had good years or haven't had good years throughout. It feels like there is a top tier of about eight players, and then a second tier of maybe six or seven guys. And then after that, I think I think the first round is pretty wide open for everybody.
Mayo: The craziness of last year has led to people really not knowing this year. And this extra time, you would think that would help you solidify. But I think people are confused. ... It’s not a terribly deep Draft. But I will say, from an Orioles standpoint, it’s a good time to be picking not No. 1, but fourth or fifth. There's a handful of really good players, and if you want to just take the best player available, and you're picking where -- like where the Orioles are, you have the opportunity to kind of just wait to see who is there when you pick.
MLB.com: Let’s dig deeper into that. What is the talent level like at the top of the Draft this year compared to years prior?
Mayo: It’s good, not great. At the very top the thing that stands out the most are the high school shortstops. There is a chance that there'll be four high school shortstops taken in the top 10. … A lot of times there's one or maybe two guys that really run away and separate themselves as the top one or two [players] in the class. That hasn't happened. There are a couple guys who have been very, very good.
Callis: This is not a good Draft for college bats, especially at the top. There is [Louisville catcher] Henry Davis, and then there is a dropoff. But there are four really good high school shortstops. At least a couple of those guys could be available at No. 5. And there's two really good college pitchers in [Vanderbilt righties] Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker. And there's an excellent high school pitcher in [Oklahoma prep righty] Jackson Jobe. … While I don't think it's a deep Draft, I think the Orioles are in a good spot at pick No. 5, where they're going to get a really good player. … Unless they [make some] kind of deal or something, which has been rumored, they're going to get a player who might be on pretty equal footing with the guy who does go number one.
MLB.com: That’s interesting because in the Elias years, the Orioles have been very college-bat heavy in their Drafts. Do you think the board will dictate them altering their strategy this year?
Callis: A lot of teams picking behind the Orioles think they're going to do what they've done in the past, which is take a college bat, cut a deal, move the guy up and save money to spend later. If they did that, you could be talking about guys like Sam Houston outfielder Colton Cowser, Boston College outfielder Sal Frelick or UCLA shortstop Matt McLain. Henry Davis could get to them at No.5. I think it’s close to 50/50 whether he does. If he’s gone, they are either going to have to change their M.O. or push a guy up the board where most teams would’ve have him at five.
Mayo: Frelick and Cowser seem to fit in the [pick No.] 10-15 range in our mocks, so they wouldn’t be reaching for a second-rounder. It would be similar to them taking Heston Kjerstad at No.2 last year, where -- if 2020 had been a regular year -- that might not have been a big surprise because he was hitting so well. … I think it’s up in the air which direction [Elias] goes. There is also the possibility that one of the teams in the top four does something surprising, which could happen, and then things could change. I had Henry Davis going past the Orioles and them taking Texas prep shortstop Jordan Lawlar in my last mock, which is not their M.O. But they also might not have thought Lawler was going to be there.
MLB.com: Let’s have fun with hypotheticals. Whatever the Orioles do at No.5, do you think it’s a bigger or smaller surprise than them taking Kjerstad second overall last year?
Callis: I think it's a smaller surprise. I was shocked it was Kjerstad. … I don’t think anybody saw that one coming. I would be really surprised if we’re more surprised [this year], is the best way to put it.
Mayo: None of us had any inclination. You heard whispers of maybe a deal, but that definitely surprised everyone. It was a surprise last year, so this year it's one of those 'fool me once' kind of deals, right? And this year, there's just so much uncertainty and there is less separating the players, and the pool that they're choosing from is not that far off.
MLB.com: The Orioles’ farm system has improved dramatically in the last few years, now ranking as the fifth best system in baseball per MLB Pipeline. How important is this Draft for their rebuild?
Callis: It's important to get that No. 5 pick, because you're getting a potential franchise player there. They also have one of the highest pools available, so they have the ability to do more damage in the Draft than anybody else. Their system isn't as thin as it was, say, two years ago. So from that standpoint it's not like if they blew the number one pick and didn't have a good draft behind Adley Rutschman. Then they’d be in trouble. They don't have that kind of pressure. It still matters.