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Elias says Orioles still mulling over options for second overall pick

Posted on 08 June 2020 by Luke Jones

Even though the on-field aspect of a lengthy rebuilding effort was halted in March, general manager Mike Elias and the Orioles have remained busy preparing for this week’s unprecedented amateur draft.

With the 2020 draft shortened to just five rounds and the Orioles having only six picks at their disposal in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Elias said Monday that no decision has been made on the second overall pick with the organization still “actively discussing” five candidates. Detroit is almost universally expected to draft Arizona State first baseman Spencer Torkelson with the first overall pick while many mock drafts have projected the Orioles to select Vanderbilt infielder Austin Martin at No. 2.

Other players regarded as potential top five picks include Texas A&M left-handed pitcher Asa Lacy, Florida high school outfielder Zac Veen, Georgia right-hander Emerson Hancock, and New Mexico State infielder Nick Gonzales.

Evaluators love Martin’s exit velocity and contact rates and view him as a polished hitting prospect and a good athlete, but there are some questions about where he’ll end up defensively. After not taking a pitcher until the eighth round in his first draft as Orioles general manager last year, Elias downplayed any thoughts of prioritizing positional need early.

“We have not made up our mind about our top two players on the board in preparation for the second pick,” said Elias, who continues to collect medical information and to gain a better sense of prospects’ financial demands. “We have choices that we like, and we’re trying to pick between players that we like. That’s a good thing and the most important thing, but we have not made a decision as to how we’re going to finalize that grouping, and we may not until the day of the draft.”

Baltimore also holds the first competitive balance pick at the conclusion of the first round, which has prompted speculation about Elias drafting under slot with the second pick and using those bonus savings for that 30th overall selection as well as the club’s second-round choice at 39th. It’s all about “trying to make the best investment that we can” in the second-year general manager’s words.

The Orioles selected catcher Adley Rutschman first overall last season, only the second time the club has owned the top selection in the amateur draft. Their draft pool is $13,894,300, the most among all teams this year.

“I think the short draft will constrain your ability to spread bonus pool money around — or at least the opportunity to do so,” Elias said. “If a team does sign their first pick for less than slot, they’re going to be under more pressure to apply that savings in the first few rounds. Whereas in a normal draft, you could sign one player with all of that money with an early pick, [and] you can kind of spread it out through the rest of the draft.

“We feel it’s important if you’re taking a guy with a high pick that he’s your favorite guy.”

Despite the remainder of the college baseball season being canceled in March and many high school seasons never taking place this spring, Elias has no major complaints about a unique pre-draft process that’s still gone “very smoothly” for the Orioles. Of course, scouts have been forced to rely heavily on past video with no games to attend, but technology has eased concerns that would have been a much bigger reality even 10 years ago.

The challenges stemming from the pandemic are expected to slant this draft more toward college talent, especially after the opening round. The absence of in-person work has been challenging, but it’s prompted the organization to innovate.

“Our analytics team did a great job of building a virtual draft board very quickly, and it’s really nice,” Elias said. “We can drag magnets around. Everyone can see it on their computer screen. It’s really easy to use. You can click through and have all of the player info and video that you want right there. Honestly, I think it’s something that we’re going to keep using. We may be done with physical magnets even when we get back to normal.

“It has been a little more tiring for all of us to conduct these meetings over the phone and over video. Usually, a draft room is a really energetic, fun experience, and we’re not getting that this year, which is a shame. But it hasn’t stopped us from being productive at all.”

Pessimism persists about the resumption of the 2020 season with MLB’s latest financial proposal not being received favorably by players still expecting the full prorated pay agreed upon by the sides in late March, but Elias remained positive when asked about his current concern level. What happens with the players drafted later this week and the many minor-league prospects missing out on critical seasoning remains to be seen.

“I think we’re going to play,” said Elias about the 2020 major league season. “I don’t know what the length and structure is going to be. That’s really hard to predict right now with the discussions that are ongoing. But I’m very confident we’re going to play.”

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Orioles return Rule 5 pitchers, reassign Rutschman to minor-league camp

Posted on 06 March 2020 by Luke Jones

On the same day the Orioles reassigned 2019 first overall pick Adley Rutschman to minor-league camp, general manager Mike Elias announced two Rule 5 pitchers would be returned to their former clubs.

Despite faring well in limited Grapefruit League action, right-handers Michael Rucker and Brandon Bailey were waived with Opening Day still nearly three weeks away. Elias cited the challenge of keeping Rule 5 pitchers with 2020’s new roster rules as the reason Rucker and Bailey wouldn’t be retained. With the 25-year-old pitchers clearing waivers, Rucker has been returned to the Chicago Cubs organization while Bailey goes back to Houston.

After posting a 4.28 ERA in 75 2/3 innings at Double-A Tennessee last season, Rucker pitched five scoreless innings this spring, allowing four hits and two walks while striking out three. Bailey pitched to a 3.30 ERA in 92 2/3 innings for Double-A Corpus Christi last season and allowed one run and three hits in four innings of Grapefruit League action.

Last year, the Orioles retained Rule 5 shortstop Richie Martin for the entire season and kept him in the organization, but Elias returned Rule 5 utility player Drew Jackson to the Los Angeles Dodgers in early April.

The decision to part with Rucker and Bailey so early in the spring is quite the contrast from Dan Duquette’s contending Orioles clubs of several years ago that frequently played shorthanded just to keep marginal Rule 5 talent in the organization. In the midst of a multiyear rebuilding effort, Elias apparently didn’t see the long-term value to justify carrying overmatched pitchers in the majors, especially as part of a bullpen likely to be very busy once again in 2020.

Reassigning Rutschman was hardly a surprise as the Orioles merely wanted to give the 22-year-old catcher a taste of major league camp before his first full professional season. The organization’s No. 1 prospect collected a single and a walk while striking out five times in 10 plate appearances. Rutschman is likely to begin 2020 at Single-A Frederick after finishing last season with Single-A Delmarva.

The Orioles also optioned right-handed pitcher Dean Kremer and outfielder Ryan McKenna to Triple-A Norfolk. Part of the Manny Machado trade and a candidate to be promoted to the majors later this year, the 24-year-old Kremer tossed 5 1/3 scoreless innings and struck out five in three appearances this spring. McKenna, 23, went 2-for-14 with two runs batted in, a walk, and two stolen bases in the Grapefruit League. Both Kremer and McKenna were moved to the 40-man roster last November to be protected from the Rule 5 draft.

Baltimore also reassigned catcher Martin Cervenka and pitchers Cristian Alvarado, Marcos Diplán, Hunter Cervenka, and Brady Rogers to minor-league camp on Friday. The Orioles now have 54 players remaining in major league camp.

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Twelve Orioles thoughts in early days of March

Posted on 02 March 2020 by Luke Jones

With the Grapefruit League schedule underway in Sarasota, I’ve offered a dozen Orioles thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. With three home runs and a 2.460 OPS in 14 plate appearances, Chris Davis rebounding at age 34 after a historically poor two-year stretch would be a great story, but let’s slam on — not pump — the brakes. There’s a reason Jake Fox’s name is mentioned in these parts every spring.

2. Acquired for cash last July, Asher Wojciechowski being penciled in for one of the top three spots in the rotation says way more about the Orioles than his 4.92 ERA last year, but the 31-year-old averaged 5.1 innings per start. That’s not impressive, but it’s functional, something this staff needs.

3. After adding a couple ticks to his fastball and breaking through with his changeup last year, All-Star pitcher John Means is trying to improve his breaking ball. Is he closer to being a Dallas Keuchel story like Mike Elias saw in Houston or merely the next Jeff Ballard?

4. Yusniel Diaz was slowed by a sore left shoulder before seeing his first action over the weekend and collecting a triple and a walk Monday. It’s a big year for the centerpiece in the Manny Machado trade, who needs to stay healthy and will likely begin 2020 with Norfolk.

5. Making his spring debut Monday after dealing with an illness, Hunter Harvey threw fastballs from 95 to 97 miles per hour, exactly where you’d expect him to be for his first Grapefruit League outing. His mullet is in midseason form, however. He’ll be fun to watch this year.

6. It’s a crucial time for guys like Rio Ruiz and Dwight Smith Jr. to make the case to be more than the placeholders they’re perceived to be. Ruiz faces less competition at third base, but Smith, who’s out of options, could be the odd man out in a crowded outfield.

7. Renato Nunez has made six spring starts at third after starting eight games there all last year. The designated hitter spot will be quite crowded once Ryan Mountcastle arrives in Baltimore, so Nunez would really benefit from showing defensive improvement. I’m interested to see how he follows his 31-homer campaign.

8. With Baltimore trying to improve a league-worst 5.79 bullpen ERA, Tanner Scott must show growth after walking 6.5 batters per nine innings last year. The fastball-slider combination is there and he’s struck out 12.7 per nine in his career, but finding a way to get right-handed bats out is crucial.

9. Bruce Zimmermann, a 25-year-old Loyola Blakefield graduate, gave up two homers on Monday, but he struck out six in 2 2/3 innings with a swing-and-miss slider and fastball touching the mid-90s. He’ll be a lefty to watch at Norfolk for a potential call-up later this season.

10. The Orioles made too many mistakes on the bases last year, but it’s interesting to hear how they’re exploring using speed in a power-hungry era in which steals have diminished to preserve outs. It’s a way a rebuilding club should be experimenting in search of a future edge.

11. J.J. Hardy is one of several guest instructors to be invited to camp this spring. Considering the positive influence he had on young infielders like Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop in his time as an Oriole, the former Gold Glove shortstop is a nice resource to have around.

12. This is an annual complaint, but 21 clubs will have more spring games televised locally than the Orioles’ seven on MASN. Other bottom-tier teams are streaming additional games. For an organization selling the future, not offering more looks at Adley Rutschman and other prospects in camp is a missed opportunity.

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Twelve Orioles thoughts at start of 2020 spring training

Posted on 18 February 2020 by Luke Jones

With full-squad spring workouts now underway in Sarasota, I’ve offered a dozen Orioles thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The patience required for a multiyear rebuild was already agonizing enough for the fan base, but the model being the 2017 Houston Astros now carries much different connotations. That’s a tough pill to swallow when there is no guarantee of success.

2. That’s not to convict Mike Elias and Sig Mejdal of anything beyond association as neither has been named in any scandal reporting so far, but I can’t believe they weren’t aware of what was going on as longtime Jeff Luhnow lieutenants dating back to their St. Louis days. It’s uncomfortable.

3. Chris Davis adding 25 pounds to get stronger doesn’t carry much weight when he balked at overhauling his swing, citing age and past success that was an eternity ago. He still views himself as an everyday player “until it’s proven otherwise,” but shouldn’t that be the other way around?

4. Some are interpreting Davis’ admission of contemplating retirement as the end being near, but it could have the opposite effect. Ownership hasn’t been willing to walk away from this disastrous contract so far, so why wouldn’t they dig in their heels over the possibility of Davis forgoing millions?

5. On a more positive note, Adley Rutschman being in major league camp is the brightest sign of hope yet for the rebuild. You wouldn’t expect him to be there long, but the first overall pick seeing a little Grapefruit League action would be fun.

6. We’ll likely wait until summer for more prospects to debut in Baltimore, but Austin Hays and Hunter Harvey showed enough late last season to be excited for 2020. Health remains a sticking point, but both have a chance to be part of the next contender in Baltimore.

7. Ryan Mountcastle has worked in the outfield over the first couple days of camp as the organization’s search for his defensive position continues. I’m still a little more concerned about him walking only 24 times in 553 plate appearances at Norfolk last season. He just turned 23 Tuesday, however.

8. The minor-league signings of Tommy Milone and Wade LeBlanc aren’t moving the meter for a rotation projected to again be poor, but either veteran lefty eating innings and decreasing the need for position players to pitch as frequently would be welcome. Just be a little more functional.

9. At this time last year, no one was predicting John Means to make the club, let alone the All-Star team. It would be encouraging to see another Means-like story or two — David Hess took a cue from the lefty — on a roster still with more placeholders than players of interest.

10. The performances of Hays and Chance Sisco last spring serve as a reminder that Elias doesn’t put much stock in Grapefruit League numbers, but Mountcastle and pitchers Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer performing well would serve as promising harbingers for call-ups later this year.

11. I believe in Elias, but I hoped to see more imagination this offseason in terms of signing a value free agent to flip or taking on a contract in a trade to buy a prospect. Having baseball’s lowest payroll is great for ownership, but that alone doesn’t expedite this process.

12. Rob Manfred stating his belief of “a good future for baseball in Baltimore” is fine, but the MASN resolution and a new stadium lease beyond the 2021 season are the real keys. The attendance for a team currently not trying to win has nothing to do with it.

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Rutschman, two Orioles pitching prospects on Baseball America’s top 100 list

Posted on 22 January 2020 by Luke Jones

Anticipation for the 2020 season isn’t exactly bursting at the seams with the Orioles still in the early innings of a massive rebuild, but there’s hope for the future if Baseball America’s top 100 prospects list is any indication.

Each of Baltimore’s last three first-round picks landed among the publication’s latest top 100 released Wednesday with 2019 first overall pick Adley Rutschman ranking as the fifth-best prospect in baseball. Regarded by many as the best draft prospect since Bryce Harper in 2010, the 21-year-old catcher won countless collegiate awards as a junior at Oregon State before being selected with the first pick of the Mike Elias era in Baltimore last June.

Set to be among the Orioles’ non-roster invitees to major league spring training next month, Rutschman appeared in 37 games across three levels last summer, batting a combined .254 with four home runs, 26 runs batted in, and a .774 on-base plus slugging percentage. The switch-hitting catcher played for the Gulf Coast League Orioles, short-season Single-A Aberdeen, and Single-A Delmarva and appeared in the South Atlantic League playoffs with the Shorebirds last September.

Baltimore’s 2018 first-round round pick, right-handed pitcher Grayson Rodriguez ranks 35th overall on Baseball America’s list after sharing the organization’s Jim Palmer Minor League Pitcher of the Year award with Double-A Bowie right-hander Michael Baumann last season. The 6-foot-5, 220-pound Rodriguez, 20, went 10-4 with a tidy 2.68 ERA in 94 innings with Delmarva, averaging 12.4 strikeouts compared to 3.4 walks per nine innings.

Left-hander DL Hall was Baseball America’s No. 47 prospect after going 4-5 with a 3.46 ERA in 80 2/3 innings at Single-A Frederick. The 21-year-old averaged an impressive 12.9 strikeouts per nine innings, but he’s still honing his control after averaging 6.0 walks per nine frames. The 6-foot-2, 195-pound Hall was the No. 54 prospect on Baseball America’s top 100 list last January.

Both Rodriguez and Hall were selected to play in last year’s All-Star Futures Game in Cleveland.

Other notable Orioles prospects listed as missing the cut included infielder Ryan Mountcastle and outfielders Yusniel Diaz and Austin Hays. All three had appeared on past Baseball America’s top 100 prospects lists.

Despite being named the organization’s Brooks Robinson Minor League Player of the Year and winning the International League MVP award in 2019, Mountcastle didn’t make the list after batting .312 with 25 homers, 35 doubles, 83 RBIs, and an .871 OPS for Triple-A Norfolk. Mountcastle’s future remains promising since he’ll turn only 23 next month, but his lack of a defined defensive position and underwhelming plate discipline — 24 walks in 553 plate appearances — probably didn’t help his case with the publication.

The centerpiece of the Manny Machado trade in 2018, Diaz was one of the bigger disappointments in an otherwise fruitful year for Baltimore’s farm system as nagging leg injuries limited the 23-year-old to 85 games. The Cuban outfielder batted .262 with 34 extra-base hits, 53 RBIs, and an .807 OPS in 322 plate appearances for Bowie last season.

Hays was hampered by injuries for a second straight season, but a September promotion to the Orioles allowed the 24-year-old to showcase his upside as he shined in center field and batted .309 with four homers, six doubles, 13 RBIs, and a .947 OPS in 75 plate appearances. He’ll be vying to break camp as Baltimore’s Opening Day center fielder this spring.

This marks the first time since 2009 that the Orioles have three prospects in Baseball American’s top 50 after Matt Wieters ranked first overall, Chris Tillman 22nd, and Brian Matusz 25th that year.

Below are the Orioles who have appeared on Baseball America’s top 100 prospects list since 2008:

2020: C Adley Rutschman (5th), RHP Grayson Rodriguez (35th), LHP DL Hall (47th)
2019: OF Yusniel Diaz (37th), LHP DL Hall (54th), 3B Ryan Mountcastle (90th)
2018: OF Austin Hays (21st), C Chance Sisco (68th), 3B Ryan Mountcastle (71st)
2017: C Chance Sisco (57th)
2016: none
2015: RHP Dylan Bundy (48th), RHP Hunter Harvey (68th)
2014: RHP Dylan Bundy (15th), RHP Kevin Gausman (20th), LHP Eduardo Rodriguez (65th)
2013: RHP Dylan Bundy (2nd), RHP Kevin Gausman (26th)
2012: RHP Dylan Bundy (10th), SS Manny Machado (11th), 2B Jonathan Schoop (82nd)
2011: SS Manny Machado (14th), LHP Zach Britton (28th)
2010: LHP Brian Matusz (5th), 3B Josh Bell (37th), LHP Zach Britton (63rd), RHP Jake Arrieta (99th)
2009: C Matt Wieters (1st), RHP Chris Tillman (22nd), LHP Brian Matusz (25th), RHP Jake Arrieta (67th)
2008: C Matt Wieters (12th), RHP Chris Tillman (67th), RHP Radhames Liz (69th), LHP Troy Patton (78th), OF Nolan Reimold (91st)

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Orioles' Joe Jordan introduces pitcher Bundy to the media before the Orioles' MLB American League baseball game against the Blue Jays in Baltimore

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Bundy trade serves as reminder of Orioles’ past — and unknown future

Posted on 04 December 2019 by Luke Jones

Dylan Bundy was once the consensus best pitching prospect in baseball and considered a centerpiece of the Orioles’ bright future.

Making his major league debut two months shy of his 20th birthday seven years ago, Bundy was thought to be the future ace of a Baltimore club that was about to make its first postseason appearance in 15 years and entering a competitive window that would bring two more trips to the playoffs in a five-year period. On Wednesday, the 27-year-old with a career 4.76 ERA, diminishing velocity, and a longer history of injuries than successes was traded to the Los Angeles Angels for four minor-league pitchers.

With general manager Mike Elias clearly in the midst of an offseason teardown after a mostly status quo 2019 used to evaluate every aspect of the organization, Bundy was always on borrowed time with the Orioles. The trade hardly falls into the same category of a full-blown salary dump like Monday’s Jonathan Villar deal — which was a tough pill to swallow for anyone searching for any redeeming entertainment value in the 2020 Orioles — but a league-average starter projected to fetch upwards of $5 million in arbitration and with two years of remaining club control was an asset that could be used to at least improve the baseline of pitching depth in the organization. Of course, we all knew Bundy and Villar weren’t going to be part of the Orioles’ next contending club — whenever that might be.

Right-handers Kyle Bradish, Isaac Mattson, Kyle Brnovich, and Zach Peek are unlikely to land on any top 100 prospect lists anytime soon, but the marked strides made in the minors under the guidance of director of pitching Chris Holt last year offer hope that Elias and the organization see potential and value in these four pitchers, especially with Peek and Brnovich having just been drafted in the sixth and eighth round respectively last June. The same logic can apply to left-hander Easton Lucas, who was viewed as little more than a token piece from Miami in the Villar deal.

But there are no sure things other than the organization now having cut roughly $15 million in projected payroll for 2020. Those savings will be championed by optimists as fruitful during a rebuild, but we have no way of knowing whether those resources will go back into baseball operations in some form or simply into ownership’s pockets, the latter possibility painting the more cynical picture of clubs “tanking” in today’s game while still charging major-league prices.

In Villar’s case, there appeared to be little downside to keeping a productive player on a club that had already lost 108 games last year and slashed its Opening Day payroll in half from 2017 to 2019. No viable infield prospect is knocking at the major-league door either, but he was deemed too expensive to play on a last-place club.

Bundy clearly brought a more valuable return, but a major league club that struggled mightily last year just to field a functional pitching staff — one that avoids the need for position players to pitch in the late innings if nothing else — will now be tasked with filling an additional 30 starts and 160 innings. Perhaps utility man Stevie Wilkerson should be on a throwing progression this spring.

Yes, the thought of the Orioles being even worse in 2020 after a combined 223 losses the last two seasons is difficult to stomach if you’re still trying to watch on a semi-nightly basis, but Elias has never shied away from the organization’s “strategic objectives” being solely about the future. That’s why you wonder if trades of Mychal Givens and, yes, possibly Trey Mancini could be right around the corner.

The short-term pain — alright, let’s call it medium-term if we’re being realistic — is intended to reap long-term success. As Elias said in a conference call Wednesday evening, the goal isn’t to field a more competitive team in 2020 but to field a sustainable playoff contender at Camden Yards in the future. None of this is surprising or even the wrong strategy, but that doesn’t make the current state easy or enjoyable in what’s ultimately an entertainment business.

And it isn’t necessarily destined to work in the same way it did for the Houston Astros or the Chicago Cubs.

In the same way Orioles supporters are now daydreaming about better days with Adley Rutschman, Ryan Mountcastle, Grayson Rodriguez, and DL Hall, Bundy was once the future. But instead of being a difference-maker for a 2014 club that ended up falling four wins shy of an American League pennant or becoming a young ace for a contender, he never realized that once-great potential because of injuries and became only a serviceable major league starter once the Orioles’ competitive window was already closing.

Bundy’s departure is both a reminder of those better days for the Orioles and his own unfulfilled promise.

That same kind of hope is all Orioles fans have right now. With no guarantees of a reward down the line.

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Twelve Orioles thoughts entering late August

Posted on 20 August 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles entering the final days of August and approaching 40-man roster call-ups, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. If you’re reading this, Baltimore may have already set a new major league record for home runs allowed in a season, demolishing the mark of 258 by the 2016 Cincinnati Reds. Four other clubs are on pace to surpass that record. Do chicks still dig the long ball that much?

2. Baltimore going 16-15 from June 28 through Aug. 4 was a nice diversion, but the 1-12 stretch against the New York Yankees, Houston, and Boston reminded how long the road back to even respectability remains. My 58-104 prediction isn’t looking good, but just 15 games remain against teams over .500.

3. Adley Rutschman being promoted to Delmarva felt inevitable after his bat had warmed at Aberdeen with a .462 average over his last 10 games and his first homer in a 5-for-5 performance for the IronBirds Monday. The first overall pick playing in the postseason with the Shorebirds should be fun.

4. Hunter Harvey making his debut at Fenway Park was one of the better moments of 2019, but Brandon Hyde noting he would have likely pitched the right-hander if the Orioles had taken a lead in the seventh inning Monday was very interesting. Despite the many injuries, Harvey is just 24.

5. After not starting Chris Davis on consecutive nights against right-handers, Hyde said the first baseman is healthy and the decision is about wanting to play Trey Mancini at first. With September bringing call-ups and a potential Mark Trumbo activation, Davis could be buried deeper on the bench.

6. After pitching five no-hit innings Monday, John Means was harmed by his defense and then couldn’t retire a batter in the sixth before being pulled. The outing was a step in the right direction, but the All-Star pitcher owns a 7.48 ERA since the break.

7. Hanser Alberto continues to amaze with a .319 average and .407 mark against lefties. The lack of power and shortage of walks limit his value, but he’s provided pretty solid defense, easily making him someone you’d like to keep around. What a fun story.

8. His performance for Delmarva this season speaks for itself, but Grayson Rodriguez looks more like a post-college pitcher than a 19-year-old in appearance and how he handles himself. The 2018 first-round pick is pleased with his changeup development and has hit 99 mph in recent starts. He’s an exciting talent.

9. Ryan Mountcastle drawing 20 walks in 494 plate appearances at Norfolk is concerning, but a .311 average, 53 extra-base hits, and an .868 OPS make him a clear candidate for a September promotion since he’ll go on the 40-man roster this offseason anyway. Where he’ll play remains a question.

10. A lat strain will keep DL Hall out for the rest of Single-A Frederick’s season, but the 20-year-old posted a 2.25 ERA with 43 strikeouts and 16 walks in his last 32 innings. His 6.0 walk rate per nine must improve, but he showed better control in the second half.

11. This season will be remembered for historically terrible pitching, but the Orioles are last in the majors in defensive runs saved and last in the AL in DRS for the second straight season. Improving the defense is a major priority before the arrival of their talented pitchers in the minors.

12. The Orioles remain an easy target for the tanking outrage crowd, but they’re really an example of the dangers of keeping a core together too long. Explain again what Mike Elias should have done differently to any meaningful degree after inheriting a 115-loss team that entered 2018 hoping to contend.

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Twelve Orioles thoughts on Adley Rutschman’s Baltimore introduction

Posted on 25 June 2019 by Luke Jones

With Orioles first overall pick Adley Rutschman being introduced in Baltimore after signing a record-breaking $8.1 million bonus Monday, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. In a season with very little to look forward to, fans attending Tuesday’s game were treated to a look at the new face of the Orioles rebuild. The standing ovation Rutschman received was energetic and one of hope from a fan base needing much more to cheer about these days.

2. Rutschman being introduced on the same day Manny Machado returned to Camden Yards was fitting. The Orioles also owned the majors’ worst record when Machado was selected third overall June 7, 2010. Twenty-six months later, he debuted on a playoff-qualifying team. Fans can dream.

3. Mike Elias said Rutschman will soon report to Sarasota and spend a brief time with the Gulf Coast Orioles before going to short-season Single-A Aberdeen later this summer. If he excels for the IronBirds, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a late-season promotion to Delmarva for the postseason.

4. Rutschman will see time at first base and as a designated hitter in addition to catching duties this season. The organization is very comfortable with his work behind the plate, so there’s no sense overworking him there if the greater focus in 2019 is getting him professional at-bats.

5. The 21-year-old was very businesslike during his introductory press conference, but you couldn’t miss the big smile on his face when he was asked about his makeup as a catcher. He relishes the opportunity to impact so many parts of the game behind the plate.

6. Rutschman admitted the Oregon State pitching coach called most pitches — very typical in college baseball — but he offered more input as he gained experience and did call his own pitches in the Cape Cod League and playing for Team USA. This will be an important part of his development.

7. Swinging from the left side, Rutschman put on a show during batting practice with the current Orioles before Tuesday’s game. In roughly 10 swings, I saw him hit a ball onto Eutaw Street, another over the center-field fence, and a third off the right-center wall. Not too bad.

8. There’s no truth to the rumor that Brandon Hyde lobbied to add him to Tuesday’s lineup, but Rutschman looked the part in a setting where all eyes were on him. Of course, he’s dealt with the spotlight for a couple years playing in a high-profile program with scouts always watching.

9. Orioles scout Brandon Verley was glowing in his assessment of the player he began tracking at the high school level and has seen Rutschman swing a wooden bat multiple times with no concerns. “You give him a toothpick, and he’d figure out how to hit.” That’s a pretty good line.

10. Rutschman mentioned Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina as major leaguers he admired growing up. That had to please Elias, who is very familiar with both as a former St. Louis Cardinals scout and witnessed firsthand the impact Molina has brought as their longtime catcher.

11. Watching Rutschman interact with the likes of Keon Broxton and Dwight Smith Jr. in his hitting group, I couldn’t help but wonder how many current players will be around when the young catcher is promoted to the majors. The Orioles will try to take their time with him, of course.

12. I’m always reminded how special a day like Tuesday is for the many Orioles and Ravens draft picks I’ve covered over the years. Most attention falls on their playing potential and the business side, but witnessing an entire family’s joy on such a life-changing day never gets old.

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Orioles’ first 10 rounds reflect new regime, reputation of 2019 draft

Posted on 05 June 2019 by Luke Jones

The first 10 rounds of the 2019 amateur draft have said plenty about the new Orioles regime and reinforced the prevailing reputation of this year’s class.

The selection of Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman first overall was an easy choice needing no interpretation, but general manager Mike Elias taking up-the-middle position players with his next seven picks is quite a shift from the pitching-heavy drafts of recent years under former executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette and former director of amateur scouting Gary Rajsich. After drafting pitchers with 22 of their 32 total picks in the first 10 rounds of the previous three drafts, the Orioles didn’t take a pitcher until the eighth round Tuesday and took only two arms — both from college — with their first 11 picks.

Such a ratio would be more unusual if not for the overwhelming perception of this being one of the worst pitching drafts in recent memory as no pitcher was taken in the first six spots for the first time ever. Just 10 of the first 30 picks Monday were pitchers, a sharp departure from the last decade in which 14.5 pitchers were taken with the first 30 choices on average.

No one would describe this farm system as being anywhere close to deep in the pitching department — especially at the advanced levels — but the previous regime’s last few drafts deserve some credit for adding enough talented pitchers to at least make Elias feel better about not reaching for inferior arms over the first two days of the draft. DL Hall, Grayson Rodriguez, Keegan Akin, Zac Lowther, Blaine Knight, Brenan Hanifee, Michael Baumann, and Drew Rom all currently appear on Baltimore’s MLB.com top 30 prospects list after being drafted from 2016-18 and virtually all are having good 2019 campaigns. Perhaps College of Charleston right-hander Griffin McLarty and VCU righty Connor Gillispie will join that collection of promising talents in the not-too-distant future after being drafted Tuesday.

The lack of pitcher selections doesn’t tell the whole story about the Orioles’ first 11 picks, however.

It’s no coincidence that Elias drafted three shortstops and three center fielders as he’s clearly trying to upgrade the organization’s athleticism. Too often in the past, Baltimore would select corner players lacking positional flexibility, which can lead to questionable team defense and logjams like the one we’ve witnessed at first base for years. You draft an abundance of shortstops having the ability to play other infield spots or even the outfield if necessary. Similarly, a surplus of center-field prospects should provide plenty of plus-defense corner outfielders along the way.

In other words, if you’re going to draft a player already at a corner spot in high school or college, you better believe his bat has a good chance of being special.

Elias also followed the selection of Rutschman by drafting catchers in the sixth and 10th rounds after the Orioles had taken only one backstop in the previous five drafts combined. That’s probably a reflection of the organization’s current minor-league catchers as much as anything else, but you can never have too much depth at such a physically demanding position.

To be clear, none of these ideas are revolutionary concepts among well-run organizations that excel in adding and developing young talent, but it’s refreshing seeing the Orioles value up-the-middle position talent. Of course, we won’t know how well these picks will fare for at least a few years.

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Orioles don’t overthink tabbing Rutschman as new face of their rebuild

Posted on 04 June 2019 by Luke Jones

A switch-hitting catcher with a tricky last name to spell and already used to wearing orange and black.

The Matt Wieters comparisons were made long before the Orioles officially made Oregon State’s Adley Rutschman the first overall pick of the 2019 amateur draft and the first selection of the Mike Elias era Monday. Wieters didn’t live up to the immense expectations — remember MattWietersFacts.com? — as the fifth overall pick of the 2007 draft despite still being a four-time All-Star selection and a two-time Gold Glove winner, but Rutschman being the consensus top pick throughout the pre-draft process and only the sixth catcher ever to be taken first overall speaks to how special the baseball world believes him to be with some going as far as calling him the best draft prospect since Bryce Harper nine years ago.

Not even Wieters’ legend at Georgia Tech included being walked with the bases loaded in an NCAA tournament game like Rutschman was last week. He was also the Most Outstanding Player of last year’s College World Series, giving him an advanced winning pedigree with a national championship under his belt.

Just days after acknowledging the risks of overthinking the No. 1 pick, Elias came to the same conclusion as the many pundits that Rutschman projects as a franchise catcher, an entity so rare in today’s game that it’s become devalued by some. And considering Houston selected a catcher no earlier than the third round in Elias’ tenure helping run its drafts from 2012-18, you can’t accuse the Baltimore executive of overvaluing the position. It’s worth noting, however, that Elias began his scouting career in St. Louis where Yadier Molina has anchored the Cardinals for 15 years and been a major part of two World Series titles and an additional National League championship.

In other words, he’s seen how special a catcher able to impact both sides of the ball can be and believes the 21-year-old Rutschman will be that caliber of player.

“He’s a team leader on and off the field,” said Elias in a statement. “He’s everything you want and he plays a premium defensive position with athleticism that gives him versatility to play elsewhere, as needed. Adley is a future fixture for this organization.

“The amount of work that goes into what he’s done and becoming the No. 1 pick is not something that’s ordinary. I met Adley this winter and was immediately struck by him and impressed by his maturity and leadership.”

Of course, there are no guarantees, especially at a position where careers are historically shorter than at other defensive spots. Perhaps time will prove Bobby Witt Jr. as the better long-term investment, but you must mention misses like Tim Beckham and Matt Bush if you’re going to cite Carlos Correa, Alex Rodriguez, and Chipper Jones as lucrative successes in support of drafting a high school shortstop first overall.

Some have argued Rutschman will develop too rapidly for the rebuilding Orioles to take full advantage of his prime catching years, but the value of having an already-established above-average defensive catcher nurturing young pitchers in the coming years shouldn’t be diminished. A rebuilding team doesn’t just go from really bad to really good overnight, so an asset like Rutschman could aid in the acclimation of young arms to the majors.

“They always talk about how he’s so good at hitting, but I don’t think they understand how good he is behind the plate dealing with pitchers, blocking balls, and throwing guys out,” Orioles infield prospect and former Oregon State teammate Cadyn Grenier said. “Just about everything you could want from a catcher, he does it phenomenally. He’s an amazing teammate. He’s a really hard worker, he’s a lot of fun to be around, he’s really easy to like.”

If Rutschman approaches the territory of Joe Mauer, the last catcher drafted first overall in 2001, Elias and the Orioles will obviously be thrilled, even if he too moves to first base eventually. If the first decade of Rutschman’s career resembles former NL Most Valuable Player and three-time World Series champion Buster Posey, the pick will be a wild success no matter what happens after that.

Even if Rutschman doesn’t reach his ceiling and has a career more comparable to that of Wieters, Elias probably won’t be as devastated as you’d think considering the former Orioles catcher’s 18.3 career wins above replacement rank seventh in the 2007 draft, just two spots lower than where he was originally drafted. We so often evaluate players based only on our initial expectations without considering what the alternatives were at the time. There is no definitive crystal ball, no matter how refined predictive analytics are becoming.

Supporters of any pick will always imagine the best possible outcome while critics of a choice envision the worst-case scenario, but no one can know for sure — including Elias. The truth is even the first overall pick of a draft won’t make or break an entire rebuild, but the Orioles need Rutschman to help speed up the process at the very least.

A catcher going first overall is rare and comes with some risk, but Rutschman may prove special enough to carry the great responsibility of being the new face of the Orioles’ rebuild and a franchise player.

In the end, Elias didn’t overthink that consensus belief.

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