The Orioles made a college hitter their top pick for the third straight season, developing a pattern that, to this point, has added helium to the club’s minor league system.
It will take some time before we can form any sort of consensus on the Orioles’ selection of Sam Houston State outfielder Colton Cowser with the fifth overall pick in the 2021 MLB Draft. That’s just the nature of baseball’s development timeline. The instant fallout, however, has been rather straightforward.
Mike Elias and his front office are thrilled, as was evidenced by the way the O’s GM gushed following the pick on Sunday night. The response from the scouting industry is more mixed as Coswer had outlets that liked him a whole bunch (FanGraphs), and others that regarded him less so (Keith Law of The Athletic). While the fans are all over the place as the knowledge levels of both the players available and the beast that is the MLB Draft vary widely.
The viewpoint of those enraged at what may prove to be an “underslot strategy” is made more understandable given the players that were still on the board when the O’s took Cowser: Vanderbilt righty Kumar Rocker, and three of the big four high school shortstops, Jordan Lawlar, Kahlil Watson, and Brady House among many, many others.
That’s not to say that all four or even any one of those players is going to be better than Cowser, but fans react based on the understanding they have. And, in this case, that understanding has been shaped by months of mock drafts that essentially refer to Cowser as a safe, less expensive option that lacks the upside of some of his peers. That’s not an exciting description even though it likely does not tell the whole story of the player’s abilities.
As someone with as much understanding of amateur prospects as anyone with internet access and a proclivity to watch highlight videos on YouTube and skim through college stat sheets, I will not be attempting to change your mind here.
But what I will say is that the strategy that Elias has employed in the first round of the 2021 draft is the exact same route he has taken in his two previous drafts at the Orioles helm.
In 2019, Adley Rutschman was the consensus top talent available, but there was talk of the O’s flirting with Bobby Witt Jr., Andrew Vaughn, and CJ Abrams with the first overall pick. In the end, Elias took the top college hitter and saved about $300,000 in signing bonus pool money. That money (in addition to more savings later on) was used to talk second-round pick Gunnar Henderson out of a commitment to Auburn. To this point, both moves have looked like wise decisions.
In 2020, Elias once again went with a proven college bat with the second overall pick, drafting Heston Kjerstad, who was universally regarded as the top power hitter available. It helped that he was willing to take a $2.5 million haircut off of his bonus too. Those savings were again used on high school prospects, third baseman Coby Mayo in the fourth round and pitcher Carter Baumler in the fifth. Reoccurring myocarditis has prevented Kjerstad from playing a professional game to this point, and Baumler underwent Tommy John surgery during the offseason. The returns here have been less favorable, but it’s very early.
There is little reason to believe the plan is anything different so far in 2021. The slot value of the fifth overall pick is $6.18 million. Cowser probably won’t take anywhere near the steep discount that Kjerstad did, but it seems realistic that the two sides could knock somewhere around $1 million off the bonus and pay him a similar value to being selected eighth or ninth overall, the spot where many public boards pegged him.
That won’t matter much until we see who else the Orioles draft this year. As many will remember, it was rumored last year that the Orioles were hoping to float high school pitcher Nick Bitsko to their competitive balance pick, 30th overall, and that is where a significant chunk of the Kjerstad savings were going. Instead the Rays took him at 24th overall and gave him a $3 million bonus, that would have represented about $700,000 overslot for the O’s if he made it to them. The O’s went with Jordan Westburg, who is having himself a nice professional debut season in the lower levels of the minors while Bitsko recovers from shoulder surgery.
It is anyone’s guess as to what the Orioles draft board looks like at this point. Clearly, every team views these players in drastically different ways. If they didn’t you wouldn’t end up with the Royals selecting a player seventh overall that many outlets had as a late-first or even second-round talent, or you wouldn’t see a player like Watson be talked up as a top-five pick only to slip down to 16th overall. Evaluation systems are unique, and in a draft that seemed to lack the obvious top-tier talent of some previous iterations it’s not particularly surprising to see many mock drafts turned upside down.
This uncertainty, however, means that there will still be plenty of intriguing talents available to the Orioles when they make the 41st overall pick of this draft on Monday afternoon, and depending upon who they take could mean they wind up with two first-round quality talents. That would be pretty neat, and it’s an option that likely only presents itself if the O’s have the extra cash to shop around.
It is more than valid to criticize Elias and his methods. I’ve done it. And you do not have to love, or even like, the Cowser pick, but you must acknowledge that Elias has stuck to the methods in which he believes here by going with a more advanced hitter that could have the added benefit of giving the club more flexibility in later rounds. Those methods (among some other influences) have allowed the Orioles minor leaguers to rise in prestige under his watch. That is yet to turn into wins on the big league stage, but there is certainly a correlation between a strong minor league system now and major league wins later.