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Orioles reset: Why Baltimore hasn’t drafted pitching recently — and why that ‘maybe’ will change this year

Orioles reset: Why Baltimore hasn’t drafted pitching recently — and why that ‘maybe’ will change this year

There’s a bevy of speculation surrounding what the Orioles will do with the first pick of next month’s amateur draft, with various mocks linking them to as many as five prospects. But it’s near-certain whoever they take won’t be a pitcher.

In their first three drafts under executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias, the Orioles haven’t taken a pitcher earlier than the fifth round, grabbing Iowa high schooler Carter Baumler there in 2020 and Texas-Arlington right-hander Carlos Tavera a year later. The club has devoted each first-round pick to college position players — for whom there is more data available and generally less associated risk — though four of the players considered as the top five of this draft class are high school hitters.

Most public rankings don’t have a pitcher in the top 10, while many of the highest-ranked arms are high school right-handers, a category of player that has never gone first overall. Elias acknowledged Saturday that this likely won’t be the year that changes.

“There aren’t any pitchers that you would take with the No. 1 pick this year,” Elias said, “so I feel pretty safe ruling that out.”

But, he noted, the Orioles’ next turn comes 33rd overall, the second of five picks they have within the draft’s opening 81 selections, and they could go with a pitcher then and “maybe” throughout the draft’s early rounds.

Each of the past three years, Baltimore’s second pick has been an infielder, with Gunnar Henderson, Jordan Westburg and Connor Norby ranking as three of the organization’s top four infield prospects, according to Baseball America. Adding to that area of the farm system was a focus in his initial drafts, Elias said. The group of prospects he inherited generally lacked top-tier infielders, which he said was partially a byproduct of the organization’s lack of investment in the international market, a talent acquisition area often populated with young infielders.

Conversely, adding pitching to the system wasn’t as much of a priority, he said, because his predecessor, Dan Duquette, and that front office used early picks on pitchers who this regime sees as pieces of its future. Four of Baltimore’s top five pitching prospects were drafted within the first four rounds in 2017 and 2018, including first-rounders Grayson Rodriguez, who has developed into the game’s top minor league arm, and DL Hall, an electric lefty building toward his major league debut.

The exception among that quintet is Kyle Bradish, one of four right-handed pitching prospects Elias acquired in December 2019 when he traded Dylan Bundy to the Los Angeles Angels. That’s an example of how Elias has also supplemented the system’s pitching through trades, allowing the Orioles to target specific pitchers they want to add without necessarily spending draft capital to do so.

That’s not to say there’s not interest in using picks on arms. When it comes time to make a pick, though, the Orioles tend to have a hitter atop their draft board.

“We have taken a lot of position players, and I know that there’s been a lot of talk obviously about selecting pitching, and rightfully so,” Orioles director of draft operations Brad Ciolek told The Baltimore Sun earlier this year. “I understand the scrutiny there. But I can confidently say that we do thoroughly look, extensively, exhausting all of our resources at pitching that’s available.”

Ciolek said the organization has several draft-focused analysts for whom “a majority of their time is devoted to taking a look at delivery analysis, taking a look at mechanics, taking a look at guys who made some changes, whether it’s with their pitch grips or their delivery, and also more or less seeing what they could improve upon if we were to take some of these arms at certain spots in the draft.”

A portion of that effort is analyzing potential risks involved with those pitchers, which Elias is certainly familiar with from his time assisting with and overseeing the Houston Astros’ drafts. Of the club’s first six first-round picks during Elias’ tenure, three each were position players and pitchers. While the three hitters — Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman and Kyle Tucker — have grown into stars, none of the pitchers have reached the majors.

With Baltimore, Elias has tended to use middle- and late-round picks on pitchers, and the results with that strategy have been promising, even if it has yet to matriculate to the majors. High-A Aberdeen’s pitching staff, littered with recent draftees, leads its league in strikeouts, WHIP and opponent’s batting average.

Unlike other professional leagues’ drafts, baseball’s is less about assuaging a need and more about taking the best player available. Still, with the Orioles seemingly having addressed most of the deficiencies of their farm system, perhaps this is the year they seek a pitcher who could soon replace Rodriguez and Hall at the top of the organizational prospect rankings.

“Pitching’s got more inherent risk with the injury rates and the variability, and we want to do as well as we can with these draft picks because they’re very important for the Orioles, so we’ll just see,” Elias said. “We’re not going to reach for pitchers, but we’re not going to shy away from them if there’s ones that fit for us with those high picks.”

What’s to come?

After a day off Monday, the rebuilding Washington Nationals visit Camden Yards for the first time since the Orioles, effectively, thrust them into that state. Last season’s late July sweep in Baltimore prompted the Nationals to sell at the trade deadline, with the Orioles’ regional rival beginning a teardown by trading Max Scherzer, Kyle Schwarber and others.

The Orioles then face a Chicago White Sox team on the other side of its rebuild but hovering around .500. The four-game series opens a 10-game, three-city trip that also takes them through Seattle and Minnesota.

What was good?

In four outings this week, closer Jorge López recorded three multi-inning saves, striking out seven in 5 1/3 innings while allowing two hits and no walks. His six saves of at least four outs are the most in the majors and tied for the most of any Oriole in the past 15 years.

Both López and manager Brandon Hyde credited the right-hander’s history as a starter for his ability to handle those situations, requiring him to finish an inning, sit as the Orioles bat, then try to end the game. In his first season as the Orioles’ manager, Hyde frequently tasked closer Mychal Givens with those types of outings, and although he finished off six of them, he saw more of them slip away after he returned to the mound for his second inning.

López has recorded at least four outs at least 11 times, matching his number of saves. He has a 0.79 ERA, the second best among relievers with at least 30 innings pitched.

“He likes going multiple innings,” Hyde said. “He want the ball in that spot, and he’s done amazing with it.”

What wasn’t?

It was a rather rough week for Trey Mancini. A pitch to his right hand in Monday’s series opener in Toronto cost him the rest of the series. He doubled in his return to the lineup Friday against Tampa Bay but also struck out three times, then went 0-for-5 on Sunday, with one of those a flyout to left field that marked his fifth drive toward Camden Yards’ wall that would have cleared the venue’s previous dimensions. Mancini’s hand pestered him enough to keep him out of Sunday’s lineup.

He entered the day with 13 expected home runs, a Statcast metric based on the percentage of ballparks a given fly ball would be a home run at; a ball that would be a home run in 15 out of the 30 major league stadiums is worth 0.5 expected home runs, for example. In actuality, Mancini has six home runs, his deficit of seven ranking as the largest in the majors with only one other player having a gap of at least four. Every other player who entered Sunday with at least 13 expected home runs had at least 12 actual ones. Mancini has at least 10 expected home runs at 26 parks, with Camden Yards among the four exceptions.

After Saturday’s deep flyout, Mancini managed to keep himself from slamming his helmet as he reached first base, restraining himself from a public showing of frustration he has worked to minimize. Hyde said he feels Mancini has managed his batted-ball misfortune well throughout the year. Despite that, Mancini is hitting .283 with a .780 OPS.

“It’s not something I really want to bring up because I think he’s so hard on himself, and I just try to stay positive with him,” Hyde said Sunday. “He hit that ball really well again yesterday with no luck, but I’m really happy with the year he’s had.”

On the farm

Three Aberdeen pitchers combined for a no-hitter Saturday against the Jersey Shore BlueCrabs, a Philadelphia Phillies affiliate. Peter Van Loon, the Orioles’ 16th-round pick in last year’s draft, worked the first five innings, improving to 7-0 and lowering his ERA to 2.66 while issuing two walks and hitting a batter. Daniel Lloyd, taken two rounds earlier, covered the next three innings before Xavier Moore closed it out around a hit batter in the ninth. 2017′s 16th-rounder, Moore has a 2.16 ERA and five saves in 15 outings for the IronBirds. Outfielder Colton Cowser, the Orioles’ 2021 first-round draftee and No. 5 prospect, homered in the 6-0 victory.


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