Were these normal times, the Orioles’ scouting operation would be descending on Baltimore this weekend, set to congregate in the warehouse offices for a comprehensive pre-Draft cram session. In the war room, they’d share intel collected from months spent on the road, debate over takeout food and, in the process, craft a Draft board with its rankings rooted in a blend of data and traditional scouting.
These are not normal times. The warehouse offices remain closed due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Very little amateur baseball was played this spring. But next week’s Draft still marks maybe the most important date on the calendar for the rebuilding Orioles, who own the largest bonus pool and three of the first 39 picks, particularly since it has been truncated to five rounds. And a board is already being built on a bedrock of those same kinds of conversations.
The difference this year is they’ve been happening for some time.
“Remote access is how we’re doing all of our meetings, with Zoom,” domestic scouting supervisor Brad Ciolek said. “We have a wider array of opinions that we typically would have, they’re just through a different medium, so to speak.”
The O’s had already been trending more toward video scouting since executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias and assistant GM Sig Mejdel took over baseball operations in November 2018, having sliced their area scout roster by more than a third and hired six analysts in their attempt to modernize. This spring put those methods to the test, as almost all the scouting was done via video rather than in person.
Scouts delivered initial reports after the amateur baseball seasons were shut down, then supplemented them with extra looks at video from previous years. Some were given crosschecking assignments on players outside their typical area, which they analyzed on video and wrote reports on from home. The process also leaned heavily on Mejdel’s analytics team, which mined older and smaller pools of data for potential targets, and tweaked its projection systems to help construct the Draft board.
If the Draft used to be baseball’s biggest boots-on-the-ground scavenger hunt, this year, it morphed into an enormous research project.
"We essentially asked our scouts to adjust to what we're dealing with here as a whole," Ciolek said. "And formulate an opinion partly on video, and partly on the track record and looks they've already gotten before the calendar turned to 2020."
The result was what Ciolek called “more reports this year than we’ve ever had” on players, “because everyone is at home and at the click of a mouse, can pull up every game” for essentially any major college program they desired. The Orioles prepared for 40 rounds before they learned in May how long the Draft would be for certain, compiling at least ancillary reports on 900 players. Ciolek now says they’re ready for 10 rounds and to put 500 names on their Draft board -- more than three times more than will be selected next week.
The circumstances also led to the Orioles putting an increased focus on makeup. While scouts always meet in person with most players on their lists, the shutdown allowed Elias, Ciolek and other officials to meet face-to-face with many prospects they wouldn’t have normally. Again, the main connecting link was Zoom.
"The players are accessible ... their schedules aren't as demanding as they would be during a normal spring," Ciolek said. "There were some days where I had six or seven calls lined up, and I would do that for a full week."
Day 1 of the 2020 Draft airs tonight on MLB Network and ESPN at 7 p.m. ET, and includes the first 37 picks. Day 2 begins at 5 p.m. ET on Thursday, June 11, on MLB Network and ESPN2, and spans the remainder of the 160 picks.
Comprehensive coverage will be available on MLB.com and MLB Pipeline, which will simulcast MLB Network’s broadcast. Go to MLB.com/Draft to see when teams pick, the Top 200 Prospects list, mock drafts from analysts Jim Callis and Jonathan Mayo, scouting video and more. And follow @MLBDraft and @MLBDraftTracker on Twitter to see what Draft hopefuls, clubs and experts are saying and to get each pick as it’s made.
Here’s how the Draft is shaping up for the Orioles, whose first selection is the No. 2 overall pick:
State of the system
The Orioles have built up their once-barren system in a relatively short amount of time, to the point where it’s now considered above-average and expected to keep improving. Top prospect Adley Rutschman is the crown jewel, but its strength is pitching depth, especially at the upper levels. Several of the club’s top prospects -- including a few of those arms -- were expected to graduate in 2020 as the rebuilding process’ first wave of new arrivals.
What they’re saying
“With three picks in the top 40, four in the top 100, it’s incredibly important that we put our best foot forward, utilize all of our resources for us, and cast a wide net and get a varying number of opinions on these guys, given the short season.” -- Ciolek
Who might they take?
Three scenarios keep coming up for the Orioles at No. 2 overall, assuming the Tigers take Arizona State slugger Spencer Torkelson first: 1) They can grab Vanderbilt infielder Austin Martin, considered the best pure hitter in the Draft; 2) they can go underslot to take similarly skilled New Mexico State infielder Nick Gonzales, then spend big on pitching at No. 30 and/or No. 39; or 3) draft the class’ best pitcher in Texas A&M southpaw Asa Lacy.
Their public stance is that they’re still considering between five and six players, but most expect them to go the simple route and take Martin, who led the Southeastern Conference in hitting and OBP as a sophomore and can play as many as six different positions.
Each team gets an allotted bonus pool equal to the sum of the values of its selections in the Draft. The more picks a team has, and the earlier it picks, the larger the pool. This year, with a five-round Draft, all signing bonuses of drafted players will apply toward the bonus pool total.
For 2020, there is a $20,000 limit on bonuses for non-drafted free agents. There is no limit to the number of undrafted players teams may sign, but they cannot go over $20,000 per player. These bonuses do not count toward the pool total.
This year, the Orioles have a pool of $13,894,300 to spend, the largest bonus pool in the Draft, including $7,789,900 to spend on their first selection.
The Orioles have a considerable amount of upper-level pitching depth -- plus two highly touted arms in the lower levels -- and stocked up on outfielders last June. What they need is impact infielders and to continue building up their lower-level pitching depth. But their system’s lack of up-the-middle athletes remains a weakness. Just three of the O’s top 22 prospects, per MLB Pipeline, are middle infielders, and the highest-touted, No. 6 prospect Gunnar Henderson, is 18 and still a long way off.
The Orioles went heavy on college position players in Elias and Mejdel’s first Draft at the helm, selecting college bats with six of their first eight picks in 2019. Ten of their first 12 were position players, with eight coming from the college ranks. Historically, Elias and Mejdel have been much more successful with college position players at the top of the Draft, hitting on Carlos Correa (first overall, 2012) and Alex Bregman (second overall, 2015) but missing on arms Mark Appel (first overall, 2013) and Brady Aiken (first overall, 2014) during their time with the Astros.
"I think there will be a shift more toward college players," Ciolek said. "As an industry, we've kind of seen that in the past. Now, with the shortened spring, I think a lot of teams will delve into that player pool compared to in a normal spring where we could scout high school players as well."