The 2021 First-Year Player Draft is defined by the number of high school shortstops residing near or at the top of boards across the industry.
The Orioles helped to steer it in a different direction tonight.
Executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias used the fifth-overall selection on Sam Houston State outfielder Colton Cowser.
This is the second year in a row that the Orioles chose an outfielder with their first pick, following the University of Arkansas’ Heston Kjerstad, who still isn’t able to play or participate in workouts due to a recurring bout with myocarditis. Kjerstad went second overall in 2020.
The Orioles haven’t chosen a high school outfielder with their first pick since Rick Elder in 1998. That one remains on hold.
Cowser, 21, posted a .354 average with 30 doubles, nine triples, 24 home runs, 112 RBIs and a 1.067 OPS over three seasons with Sam Houston State. He slashed .374/.490/.680 with 16 home runs this spring that led the Southland Conference, which named him Player of the Year.
A left-handed hitter who’s listed at 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds, Cowser surpassed Glenn Wilson, chosen 18th overall in 1980, as the highest selection in school history. Some scouts question his power potential moving forward, seeing more of a line-drive stroke, but he homered in five consecutive games in April.
Cowser plays center field but could move to a corner. Scouts also seem divided on his long-term ability to man the middle and he mostly was a right fielder in high school. He also played left and right collegiately and appeared in 20 games at third base in 2019.
MLB.com ranked Cowser as the No. 10 prospect in the draft and Baseball America put him 11th. He profiles as another underslot signing like Kjerstad, with money saved going to selections in the lower rounds.
Elias passed on Vanderbilt right-hander Kumar Rocker and three high school shortstops linked to them - Jordan Lawler, Kahlil Watson and Brady House.
The draft began with the Pirates blowing up mocks by selecting University of Louisville catcher Henry Davis, of definite interest to the Orioles. The Rangers chose Vanderbilt pitcher Jack Leiter at No. 2, the Tigers prep pitcher Jackson Jobe at No. 3 and the Red Sox prep shortstop Marcelo Mayer at No. 4.
The Orioles held the No. 1 pick in 2019, Elias’ first in the organization, and chose Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman over prep shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. Everyone in the industry knew the Tigers were selecting Arizona State infielder Spencer Torkelson first in 2020, with the Orioles throwing the industry a curve by taking Kjerstad.
Speaking of blowing up mocks.
Among Elias’ 14 highest picks before tonight, Iowa prep right-hander Carter Baumler was the only pitcher in the group. Baumler was chosen in the fifth and final round last year and underwent Tommy John surgery.
High school pitchers DL Hall and Grayson Rodriguez were first-round picks in 2017 and 2018, respectively, and shared space in Double-A Bowie’s rotation this year until Hall went on the injured list with a sore left elbow.
Illinois pitcher Cody Sedlock was the Orioles’ first-round selection in 2016, Florida State outfielder DJ Stewart in 2015, North Carolina high school pitcher Hunter Harvey in 2013, LSU pitcher Kevin Gausman in 2012, Oklahoma prep pitcher Dylan Bundy in 2011 and Florida prep shortstop Manny Machado in 2010.
The draft continues for the Orioles Monday afternoon on MLB.com with rounds 2-10 and their Competitive Balance B selection. The second rounder is 41st overall, with the B pick 65th.
The Orioles are allotted $11,829,300 with their first 11 selections, including the B round, The second-overall pick is slotted at $6,180,700.
Update: As a true freshman in 2019, Cowser started 56 games, hitting .361/.450/.602 (78-for-216) with seven home runs, 17 doubles, seven triples, 50 runs, 54 RBI and 26 walks. He was named the Southland Conference Hitter of the Year and an All-SLC First Team Outfielder. Cowser earned a spot on the Team USA Collegiate National Team, making him the first Bearkat in school history to achieve the honor,
The Cypress, Texas native led Cy Ranch High School to a 32-9-2 record and a berth in the Class 6A state tournament as a senior in 2018. He was named Class 6A First Team All-State, First Team All-District 17-6A, and Perfect Game/Rawlings Sports All-Texas Region Team.
“Colton has been and is one of the best pure hitters in the country since setting foot on campus at Sam Houston,” Elias said on a Zoom call. “All-American, Team USA year after year and this year put up a superlative line for them, showing power, hitting for average, speed, defense. He’s a five-tool player and he’s somebody we project impacts our team and our lineup on both sides of the ball, both offensively and defensively. I think it’s rare to get those types of physical tools and all five of them in a college performer like we just did. So that’s why we took him.
“There were a lot of guys left who were sort of in our finalists group, but we had Cowser over them, so we took him, but there were other players that we would have been pleased with had Cowser been gone and we put the work in and were prepared to take them.”
Elias said he didn’t know for certain that Cowser would be the selection until after the Red Sox chose at No. 4.
“You always wait for that and there was always a chance that he was their pick, as well,” he said. “This has been analyzed and written about as a good draft class, but rather bunched up in talent from one all the way to 10 and 12 in the draft, a lot of similarities in different rankings across different teams by those players. But Cowser’s a guy we were very, very high on, especially as the spring got going and the surge in power that he was showing and the consistency at the plate.
“I think one thing that’s just really rare with him, especially in today’s game, is the hit-for-average tool and the power without striking out. He’s an elite contact hitter, he uses the whole field and he runs and throws and plays center field and plays it well, and he’s just really able to do it all. And those types of profiles are hard to find, especially with the certainty that an elite college performer provides, so that’s why he was viewed by the industry as a top of the first-round talent and we pounced on him.”
Though Cowser can move around the outfield, the Orioles want him in center and know they have the freedom to switch later.
“Obviously, we have a really good center fielder on the team right now,” Elias said, “but the beauty of that position and any up-the-middle position is you can slide around if needed, and you can’t have too many center fielders. He’s a great defensive player in all three outfield spots, but he can play center and that’s a big part of his skill set.”
Elias again showed a preference for a college player.
“We have all types of data about the draft and we study the heck out of the draft,” Elias said, “and these elite college performers over and over are surprisingly good when you look back at past drafts and you’re amazed that they didn’t go higher sometimes. And that has continued to be a lesson year after year and we’re very mindful of that.
“I’ve been a part of a lot of high picks, we’ve taken high school hitters many times with those picks, we’ve taken college hitters. It just depends on the evaluation. And unfortunately, when you’re picking high you only get one pick, because you like a lot of these guys and you have to pick one player. You can’t take more than one home. So, we got our guy, very pleased about that, but there were a lot of players in this draft and there are still a lot of players on the board that we really, really like and we’ll see where this goes next round.”
Elias said he doesn’t have a lot of early memories and impressions of Cowser other than he was “young and skinny and not really a pro guy” coming out of high school, despite his All-State stature. Then he filled out in college and the perceptions changed.
“He just started raking. I mean, this guy rakes, and it was a name you heard right away as a freshman that was going to be an elite player in the country, and he’s done that,” Elias said.
“He’s gotten to this point with a lot of hard work and he’s got a lot of projection ahead of him still. This isn’t a totally finished product.”
The selection of Cowser brings the underslot strategy back into the picture, but Elias again emphasized that those savings in the first round didn’t drive his decision. The Orioles had to like the player.
“Whatever we end up signing him for, we’ll sign him for, and obviously from the club’s side, you want to preserve as much capital for the rest of the draft as possible, but you take the guy you want to take, and that’s what we did here,” Elias said. “This was our player at five and so that’s the most important thing for our draft and the way we’ve approached it wherever I’ve been. But you do work your bonus pool in this day and age and that’s what happens.”
Rocker didn’t go until 10th to the Mets.
“I wish we could have taken seven guys this year, but you couldn’t. You’ve got to pick one,” Elias said.
“We don’t draft for need. The baseball draft is very challenging. We just try to make a good pick. That’s what our goal is. We want, hopefully, an impact player, and the draft is fraught with a lot of risk, so we’re trying to get value out of these picks as much as possible.”