Five takeaways from the Orioles’ 2023 MLB draft

13 July 2023

The Orioles’ rebuild is long gone, and this week provided more evidence.

In each of the organization’s first four seasons under executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias, the MLB draft was one of the most important events each year. The three days of the 2023 draft, however, were overshadowed by the goings-on of the big league club and its players.

On Sunday, several hours before they drafted Vanderbilt center fielder Enrique Bradfield Jr. and two other college players, the Orioles routed the Minnesota Twins to end the first half of the season on a five-game winning streak, entering the break with the third-best record in the majors and the franchise’s best start since 1997.

Days 2 and 3 of the draft were outshined even more by the All-Star Game festivities. While he lost in the first round, Adley Rutschman’s 27-homer performance during Monday’s Home Run Derby captivated the baseball world. The following night, Rutschman and three other Orioles — Austin Hays, Félix Bautista and Yennier Cano — played in the All-Star Game, giving Baltimore more than one representative for the first time since 2016.

This week marked a shift for the organization from one whose main focus in July was on the influx of young talent to one that is also trying to win now. That doesn’t mean, of course, that the draft is unimportant. On the contrary, to sustain a competitive big league club in a post-rebuild world requires skilled drafting and effective player development.

Given that, here are five takeaways from the Orioles’ 2023 draft.

The first of many?

Bradfield’s plus speed and outfield defense, combined with his plate discipline and batting eye, make him an interesting prospect as he joins the No. 1 farm system in the sport. But whether he succeeds in professional baseball isn’t a slam dunk, especially compared with his predecessors as Baltimore’s first-round picks.

No. 1 overall picks Jackson Holliday and Rutschman both became the sport’s top prospect during their time in the minors, with the former now in Double-A at 19 years old and the latter an All-Star and one of the best catchers in the majors. 2021 first-rounder Colton Cowser is now in the majors, and 2020 No. 2 overall pick Heston Kjerstad could perhaps be next.

Whether Bradfield has the minor league success Rutschman, Kjerstad, Cowser and Holliday have remains to be seen. But the fact that his profile has flaws, such as his below-average power and his lack of statistical improvement during his three years in college, is a result of picking in the middle of the round, rather than at the top.

With a 54-35 record at the break, the Orioles are on pace to win 98 games and make the playoffs. If the club becomes a consistent contender in the American League, Elias & company’s experience this summer picking in the back half of the first round will be the first of many.

A baker’s dozen

As director of draft operations Brad Ciolek said before the draft, the Orioles’ strategy is to take the “best player regardless of the situation” within Baltimore’s farm system — a cliche used by virtually every team in professional sports.

However, in baseball, where you’re drafting players who are several years away from reaching the majors, drafting for need isn’t as compelling a strategy as, say, in the NFL or NBA. But the Orioles entered the draft with a farm system that has seen most of its position players progress quickly and shoot up prospect lists, while many of the pitchers in their top 20, according to Baseball America, have struggled. Given that dichotomy, it’s interesting Baltimore chose the 2023 draft as the one to make its largest investment on pitching since Elias took over before the 2019 season.

The 13 pitchers they drafted — 12 right-handers and one left-hander — are the most the organization has selected through 20 rounds during Elias’ tenure. For the first time under Elias, the Orioles took a pitcher in the first three rounds, drafting Florida State’s Jackson Baumeister No. 63 overall and Washington’s Kiefer Lord at No. 86. They followed those up by taking 11 more over the final two days, including Coastal Carolina’s Teddy Sharkey and LSU relievers Blake Money and Riley Cooper.

Whether the pitcher-heavy approach was intentional or if that’s just how the board turned out, the Orioles now have 13 more lottery tickets, all of whom Ciolek said have “upside.”

The old college try

In the five drafts with Elias at the helm, the Orioles have drafted 113 players. Ninety-eight of them were out of college. In the past four drafts, they’ve selected just seven high schoolers.

Baltimore’s preference for college players was on full display again in the 2023 draft, in which it took just two high school players out of 22 picks, the first 16 of which were college players.

Elias and Ciolek both said the benefit of scouting college players is the confidence and reliability in the information they gather at that level.

“We do focus extensively, a majority, on the college crop,” Ciolek said, “because that’s a lot of the data that we do get and allows us to do a deep dive on those players.”

The windy path pays off

The Orioles took their fair share of players from major Division I programs. Bradfield played three seasons at one of the best programs in the country. Money and Cooper just won a national championship with LSU. Second-round pick Mac Horvath played at North Carolina, and third-round pick Tavian Josenberger was drafted out of Arkansas.

Several of the college players Baltimore drafted, though, took unconventional paths to land with the Orioles. Lord, who the Orioles selected in the third round out of Washington, was a Division III pitcher for Carleton College in 2022. Right-hander Levi Wells, the Orioles’ fourth-round pick, started his career at Texas Tech, but after posting a 7.64 ERA, he transferred to a smaller school in Texas State. Right-hander Braxton Bragg, Baltimore’s eighth-round selection, traveled a similar road to Wells, transferring out of Nebraska after struggling for three years and pitching this spring for Dallas Baptist.

Two Day 3 picks came from Division II schools. Towson native Zane Barnhart, a right-handed pitcher, was drafted in the 17th round out of Hillsdale College. And infielder Jalen Vasquez started his career at South Carolina, transferred to North Greenville University for the 2023 season and was taken in the 20th round.

And three other players — ninth-round pick Zach Fruit, 10th-rounder Matthew Etzel and 14th-round selection Michael Forret — played at junior colleges. Fruit, a right-handed pitcher, began his career at Lansing Community College, transferred to Eastern Michigan and ended at Troy. Etzel, an outfielder, spent his first two years at Panola Community College before playing for Southern Mississippi in 2023. And Forret, a 19-year-old right-hander, was drafted after pitching one year at State College of Florida Manatee-Sarasota.

“A lot of these guys, depending on what school they play at, they may not have the level of instruction or the regimen that a lot of these other big schools do, like the SEC, ACC,” Ciolek said. “But there’s also outlets for these guys to go, whether it’s training facilities that will teach them those skills needed. … These are guys that we vetted. We did a lot of work with our player development, our pitching coaches, and they all seem to think the upside for all these guys is extremely encouraging.”

Late-round question marks

One of the Orioles’ most interesting picks became less so Wednesday.

Tanner Witt, who was ranked as the 76th-best prospect in the draft pool by MLB Pipeline, wasn’t taken on Days 1 or 2 because of the expectation he would return to Texas after he struggled in 2023 as he returned from Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery. The Orioles took a flier on Witt anyway, hoping they could convince the 6-foot-6 right-hander to sign instead of return to college.

But a day after Baltimore drafted him, Witt announced on Twitter his intention to return for his fourth season with the Longhorns. That doesn’t mean the Orioles can’t sign him before the July 25 deadline, although it seems unlikely they’ll be able to lure Witt.

One round after drafting Witt, the Orioles selected high school shortstop Kollin Ritchie, an Oklahoma State commit who fell to the 19th round.

Baltimore took a similar strategy last year and had some success, convincing 11th-round pick Zack Showalter to sign instead of pitch for South Florida. (Showalter is now the Orioles’ ninth-best pitching prospect, according to Baseball America). They were also able to sign Vanderbilt shortstop and LSU transfer Carter Young after taking him in the 17th round. In the 18th, they drafted right-hander Andrew Walters but were unable to sign the Miami closer.

It remains to be seen how much flexibility the Orioles will have to sign Ritchie (or Witt), who can sign for no more than $125,000 without counting against the bonus pool. Late-round picks can be shots in the dark, but if Showalter’s early success is any indication, they can be valuable additions if they sign.


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