2020 MLB Draft: An Update
The 2020 MLB Draft is rapidly approaching. As of May 1st, we stand 40 days from the June 10th start date. Now, much has changed over the past month in terms of draft preparation, talent evaluations, and the draft structure itself. All of this change has of course been wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic which has touched all aspects of society, sports notwithstanding. With all this in mind, let’s look at how the draft has changed, how this affects the Orioles, and the directions the team can go with their picks.
How Has the Draft Changed?
As the pandemic shut down collegiate and high school sports this Spring, it became clear that the various drafts for professional sports leagues would be greatly affected. Being the longest draft—40 rounds—and also drafting high school seniors meant that baseball’s draft would likely be changed most of all. This came down rather quickly after games were cancelled with the sweeping changes including reducing the number of rounds to five—with the potential for increasing to 10—as well as potentially moving the draft date back to July—this ultimately did not happen. Further, financial bonuses for draftees were greatly altered, lowering bonuses after the 5th round (Including undrafted free agents) to a maximum of $20,000 while also deferring payments on bonuses for draftees.
Many others have discussed how these changes affect the draft, so I will quickly summarize. Ultimately, it’s a raw deal for high school and college players. High school players are now more incentivized to attend college or junior college as the financial benefits of being a high draftee right out of high school are lessened. Colleges have the squeeze put on their scholarship allocations by suddenly returning Juniors, more Freshmen, and extra-eligibility Seniors. This year’s draft will be highly unusual and hard to predict, with many more moving parts than we could have possibly anticipated a year ago.
How Does this Affect the Orioles?
These changes may affect the decision-making process of all teams, including the Orioles. The draft was already college-heavy this year, and team’s were also leaning more heavily towards collegiate players in the past few years regardless. However, with the changes brought about by the current situation, college players could be even more in demand than ever.
Why? Well, as we mentioned earlier, high school seniors may be more willing to attend a Junior College in order to get their future draft bonus sooner. More importantly though, many collegiate players have the advantage of having Trackman data on them. In a day and age where data has become paramount to front offices, this allows teams to be more confident in their evaluations. Additionally, at a time when scouts are less able to get game tape, this forces teams to be more reliant on the numbers and past performance.
This tracks with the composition of the Orioles’ front office. General Manager Mike Elias and Assistant GM Sig Mejdal of course came from the Houston organization, which famously instituted a drastic pare down of the scouting department. Their belief in the numbers combined with the situation at hand seems to position the team for a college-heavy approach.
The five-round draft also has a major effect on the Orioles from a financial perspective. The team has the highest bonus pool in this year’s draft at $13.9 million. How the team uses this money will be interesting, especially given the particular situation of high school players. The large pool puts the Orioles in a position to, potentially go underslot at #2 and open up an opportunity to lure high school players with bonus slots in the mid-20s compared to the #30 slot that Orioles’ are drafting at.
Options at #2
With that said, let’s look at those options at #2. The Orioles’ choice of course depends entirely on the direction the Detroit Tigers go at #1. That said, there are three likely routes that Mike Elias and the organization can go: Arizona State 1B Spencer Torkelson, Vanderbilt OF Austin Martin, and Texas A&M LHP Asa Lacy. I wrote in short detail about each of these players, so I will summarize here. Torkelson is a 1B with impressive power and hitting, but is limited to 1B/DH duty. Martin has moved to OF this year and combines bat speed with impressive discipline and growing power. Lacy is a lefty with a mid-90s fastball, a wipeout slider, and plus changeup.
Any of these players would be a boon for the Orioles, as FanGraphs ranks all three as top-100 prospects in baseball the moment they get drafted. I have a soft spot for Lacy and Martin, but Torkelson’s bat might be too special to pass by if it’s sitting there. As of right now, both MLB.com and Baseball America have the Orioles taking Austin Martin, who is Baseball America’s #1 draft prospect as of this writing.
Options at #30
The Competitive Balance A round sees the Orioles slot in at #30. At this point in the draft rankings of Baseball America there’s a run of collegiate shortstops—Baylor’s Nick Loftin, Arizona State’s Alika Williams, and Mississippi State’s Jordan Westburg—and collegiate starting pitchers. One particularly intriguing name to me is Miami’s Slade Cecconi. The Orioles should have good background on him already—the team selected him as a draft and follow in the 38th Round in 2018—and he has a pedigree of high caliber stuff. There are even rumors of high-90s fastballs this past Fall, with secondary offerings of a slider, cutter, and changeup flashing plus. However, there are downsides, namely a tendency to catch too much of the plate and solid-not-spectacular seasons at Miami. Combine that with being a draft-eligible Sophomore makes Cecconi a tough sign, but this is an opportunity for the Orioles to flex their bonus pool and sign a player with a very high upside.
We could continue our speculation for the Orioles at #39, #74, and on. However, we will stop for now as there are many days for that going forward. In the coming weeks, we’ll look at the options and the changing landscape of the draft. Last year, I included players scores from my DRAFT (Data-Reasoned Amateur Future Talent) Model. This will return in my coming posts, as I am in the process of undergoing a major overhaul of the model.
This year’s draft will be nothing like what we have ever seen, or will ever see again. Hopefully the Orioles can put themselves in a position to continue the rebuild, taking advantage of the high draft picks—and consequent bonus pool—that their rough 2019 season got them.
Dr. Stephen Loftus received his Ph.D. in Statistics from Virginia Tech in 2015 and is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Mathematical Sciences at Sweet Briar College. Prior to that, he worked as an Analyst in Baseball Research and Development for the Tampa Bay Rays, focusing on the Amateur Draft. He currently writes at FanGraphs and Baltimore Sports and Life, with previous work available at Beyond the Box Score. As a lifelong fan of the Orioles, he fondly remembers the playoff teams of 1996-97 and prefers to forget constantly impending doom of Jorge Julio, Albert Belle's contract, and most years between 1998 and 2011.