The first night of the First-Year Player Draft found the Orioles select three position players in a catcher No. 1 overall followed by a high school shortstop and college center fielder. There were no pitchers selected yet by the Orioles and the draft began with the O’s on the clock for the second time in team history.
The club selected Oregon State junior catcher Adley Rutschman with the No. 1 pick. He became the first catcher taken 1/1 since Minnesota selected Joe Mauer in 2001. After his team lost three position players in last June’s draft from what would be a college World Series champion, Rutschman actually bettered his stats this season. Over 57 games, he batted .411/.575/.751 with 10 doubles, a triple, 17 homers, 58 RBIs, 76 walks and 38 strikeouts. Rutschman is Collegiate Baseball’s National Player of the Year and a finalist for the Golden Spikes Award.
The Orioles picked him over Texas high school shortstop Bobby Witt Jr., who went second to Kansas City; Cal first baseman Andrew Vaughn, who went third to the Chicago White Sox; and Vanderbilt outfielder J.J. Bleday, who went fourth to Miami.
In a conference call early this morning, Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias admitted it was a tough final call on the No. 1 pick and said the club did use up most of its time to make the big decision.
“In my experience, it’s never easy,” said Elias. “We had a few choices that we liked - and liked for different reasons. And all these players have pros and cons and risk in their profile. There is always more that goes into the analysis of these players than I think it’s possible for outside onlookers to understand. We put as much time as possible analyzing every angle of this. We arrived at Rutschman and were thrilled to make that decision. But it was not a decision that we took lightly and we examined it from multiple angles.”
As a college player, Rutschman could get to the majors faster than Witt. Did that factor into the decision for a club that might not contend again for several seasons? The Orioles could have selected Witt and taken plenty of time to develop him without rushing him.
“We had a little bit of that discussion,” Elias said. “It does come up. I don’t think that is ever the reason to pick one guy over another, but when you are kind of looking for tiebreakers, it’s a thing that you talk about.
“This draft, the top of the draft, went very much in order of prediction from publications that study the draft. It was very similar to what I think our board might have looked like at the top. The first four picks were all under pretty heavy discussion from us at one point or another.”
In taking Rutschman, the Orioles get a player that has plus tools on offense and defense and plays a premium position. Elias said it’s too soon to know where he will begin his pro career or exactly how his first summer of pro ball might go. But with Oregon State having been eliminated over the weekend from the NCAA regionals, his college season is over and he can sign at any point going forward.
The slot amount for the No. 1 pick this year is $8,415,300 and the O’s total pool amount for their top 10 rounds and any bonuses over $125,000 from rounds 11-40 is $13,821,300.
“First of all, we’ve got to sign him. I’m not anticipating a lot of drama there hopefully,” Elias said. “But it’s still a process that we have to go through. That will obviously dictate where and when he starts. But I also need to sit down with him and his group and our player development people and get a sense of where he’s at after the Oregon State season, then set forth some goal for this season. We’ve got to prioritize our long-range development goals with him. He’s coming off a long season and really the first summer for these types of players, it’s just about getting your feet wet in pro ball.”
In the second round, with the No. 42 pick, the O’s selected 17-year-old lefty batting prep shortstop Gunnar Henderson from John T. Morgan Academy in Selma, Ala. Henderson was rated the No. 30 prospect in this draft class by Baseball America and No. 27 by MLBPipeline.com. The slot value for that pick is $1,771,100.
A two-sport standout, Henderson was named the Alabama Independent School Association boys basketball Player of the Year for 2018-19 after averaging 17 points and 11 rebounds per game for Morgan. On the diamond, he hit .559/.641/1.225 with 17 doubles, nine triples, 11 home runs, 69 runs, 75 RBIs, and 28 stolen bases in 32 games. He was the Alabama Player of the Year.
“Gunnar Henderson is very athletic and he can run,” said Elias. “He’s a big guy, so there exists a possibility that he grows and moves to third base. But the important thing is we think his profile still holds up at third. He’s got plus power and he hits well. It’s still a third base profile, but if he ends up staying at shortstop, that would be icing on the cake.”
With a college commitment to Auburn, could Henderson be tough to sign?
“It always is with high school players, especially ones with big college commitments like that,” Elias said. “He’s a high-profile kid and I’m sure they’d love for him to show up at Auburn. But I’m reasonably confident we’re going to make a good run at him. And we have a great opportunity here for a talented high-upside infielder like him.”
With their third pick, the Orioles selected Stanford center fielder Kyle Stowers with a Competitive Balance Round B pick, which was after the second round and the No. 71 pick overall. Stowers is a lefty thrower and batter who was ranked No. 78 by MLBPipeline.com and No. 102 by Baseball America.
Stowers, 21, got off to a slow start, but hit .304/.370/.513 with 17 doubles, seven home runs, 35 runs, and 35 RBIs in 49 games during his junior season. He was rated as the No. 14 prospect in the Cape Cod League last summer when he hit .326 with six home runs.
“The slow start, those things happen and usually guys end up with the numbers they deserve,” said Elias. “And he did. Stanford is a not an easy place to put up the numbers, so those numbers are impressive for that ballpark. He really came on the scene with a huge Cape Cod League last summer. In terms of his defensive home, we feel the bat will move around to other defensive spots if he’s not playing center field. It’s a strong profile in center or somewhere else.”
Elias said there were probably 30 people in the O’s draft room that weighed in on the No. 1 pick and that meant there was not a unanimous decision on Rutschman. But he said that made for a “difficult but good decision.”
Elias’ final call was made, he said, pretty close to the time of the first pick.
“That is the way it tends to go these days with No. 1 picks,” he said. “It was something that happened late today, just prior to the draft. As I said all along, we tried to maximize the time available to us. There is no real reason to make it well in advance of the draft.”
With no pitchers taken by the Orioles yet, we know some will be coming. The draft resumes today with rounds 3-10 at 1 p.m.
“We’ll be best available through (today),” said Elias. “So I can’t guarantee that we’ll take a pitcher (today). Obviously, we’ve got to take a whole bunch of pitchers at some point in the draft. Odds are we’ll take a few (today). This was known to be a position-player heavy draft. We did have pitchers on the board for the 42 and 71 picks, we just had Henderson and Sowers higher than them.
“I think it ended up being a little bit of a diverse group. No. 1 Rutschman, a polished college catcher and following that up with a 17-year-old high school shortstop from the deep south with some upside in Gunnar Henderson. And then a really well-rounded outfielder in Kyle Stowers. It’s a good blend and this is just the start of our draft. It’s a good night, but I view (Tuesday) as almost equally important.”