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High Stakes Of No. 1: Orioles Prepare For Top Pick In MLB Draft

May 15, 2019
Nearly 30 years ago, Ben McDonald walked into the Baltimore Orioles' clubhouse for the first time as a major leaguer.

The right-handed pitcher from Louisiana State University had been a key figure in leading the United States to the gold medal in the 1988 Olympic Games and won the Golden Spikes Award as the nation's top college player in 1989. He was drafted No. 1 overall by the Orioles in June 1989 after being given the highest grade ever issued by the Major League Scouting Bureau.

McDonald went through a protracted contract negotiation with the club; his agent, Scott Boras, wanted McDonald to become the first amateur to ever sign a major-league contract. Boras got his wish: McDonald's three-year, major-league deal netted the pitcher the largest-ever guarantee ($1.2 million) and signing bonus ($350,000) for an amateur.

McDonald made two minor-league starts before getting the call to the big leagues, where catcher Mickey Tettleton awaited.

"I remember Mickey Tettleton hollering out real loud when I first walked in -- I hadn't even met anybody yet -- and he goes, 'Oh God, here comes our $1.2 million A-ball pitcher.' And that didn't sit well with me at the time because I hadn't even met anybody yet," said McDonald, who explained that the big-league minimum salary was about $45,000 at the time.

"My year's salary was going to be a lot more than a lot of guys on that young '89 Orioles team, so there was some animosity there between the players, too, when I first walked in," McDonald said. "... For me, it was a lot to deal with."

Issue 254: Ben McDonald
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Baltimore Orioles

On the evening of June 3, 2019, McDonald's 30-year reign as the lone No. 1 overall pick by the Orioles will come to an end. When the Orioles' next No. 1 pick walks into the clubhouse at Camden Yards to prepare for his major-league debut in the coming years, he may not face the pressure of a record contract, nor will he have had the same folkloric amateur career as McDonald.

However, with a bare-bones big-league team and a farm system generally considered to be among the bottom third of baseball, the player the Orioles select will instantly become the face of the Orioles' rebuilding project, a beacon of hope for fans and a symbol for better days ahead.

"All the experts are saying that the Orioles are probably going to lose 100 games again this year, so he's going to be walking into situation where the Orioles have lost 100 games possibly two years in a row," McDonald said. "That kid could very well be the face of the franchise. It's going to be interesting to see what happens, and I hope whoever it is can deal with the expectations."

IS IT RUTSCHMAN? 

The consensus top prospect in the 2019 draft is Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman, a switch hitter who led the Beavers to the College World Series title in 2018. Originally drafted by the Seattle Mariners in the 40th round in 2016, he became a candidate to go first overall in 2019 after exploding as a sophomore. Rutschman hit .408/.505/.628 in 2018, and those numbers are up across the board as a junior.

"If there's ever been anybody that should be clear cut the No. 1 pick in the draft, I think it's Adley," said LSU head coach Paul Mainieri, who coached Rutschman on USA Baseball's collegiate national team during the summer of 2018. "When you evaluate his game offensively and defensively, you've got to give it a 10, whatever you're looking at."

Issue 254: Adley Rutschman 1 (throwing)
Photo Credit: Courtesy of USA Baseball

Orioles shortstop prospect Cadyn Grenier, the club's second-round pick in 2018, was teammates with Rutschman at Oregon State in 2017 and 2018. Grenier said Rutschman's production skyrocketed as a sophomore once he gave up playing football and shifted all of his focus to baseball; Rutschman was Oregon State's kickoff specialist as a freshman.

The 6-foot-2, 216-pound Rutschman might have given up football, but perhaps not his football mentality behind the dish.

"One of the funnier things I saw him do is he caught a catcher pop-up over by our dugout," Grenier said. "He catches the pop-up and he runs into a wall that we had, an overhang over our dugout and hit his face on it and still held the ball. And you're just like, 'Dude, are you serious?' And we ended up having to put a safety pad there because the guy went face-first into a cement wall and still caught a pop-up. We kind of joked about that for awhile."

Rutschman joined Team USA shortly after winning the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., last June and played against Japan and Cuba. Mainieri described him as "a coach's dream."

"I just marveled last summer. Here's a young man who just won the national championship in college baseball in Omaha, joins our team and he wants to be in there right away," Mainieri said. "I looked at a video of our pitcher striking out the Japanese batter to end the game, a 1-0 game, and you thought Rutschman had just won the national championship again with the way he reacted -- the fist pump, the sprint out to the pitcher and giving him the big hug."

OTHER OPTIONS 

Shortstop Bobby Witt Jr., from Colleyville Heritage High School in Texas, has been on the 2019 radar for years because of both his bloodlines and his own exploits. His father won 142 games as a right-handed pitcher for seven big-league teams from 1986-2001.

Issue 254: Bobby Witt Jr.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of USA Baseball

The 6-foot-1, 185-pound Witt, a right-handed hitter, has a chance to carry five above-average tools -- the ability to hit for average, hit for power, throw, run and defend -- at the big-league level. Witt showed off his power at the High School Home Run Derby during the 2018 MLB All-Star festivities in Washington, D.C., winning the contest by hitting eight home runs in 90 seconds.

"... [From] what I have seen, there has been no stage too big," said Alan McDougal, Witt's high school coach. "I think that was kind of on display at the All-Star Game with the home run contest. To be able to go in there in 90 seconds in front of 40,000 people and do that takes obviously great athletic ability, but just someone that's got it between their ears and can slow things down. That's Bobby Witt."

University of California first baseman Andrew Vaughn, a 6-foot, 214-pound right-handed hitter, won the Golden Spikes Award in 2018 and has a claim as the top hitter in college baseball this year. He hit .402/.531/.819 as a sophomore and has kept up the pace as a junior. He made 10 appearances on the mound as a freshman, but his future is in the middle of a big-league lineup.

Issue 254: Andrew Vaughn
Photo Credit: Courtesy of USA Baseball

Vaughn played on Mainieri's collegiate national team in 2018 along with Rutschman, and the coach was impressed by Vaughn's ability to hit.

"He's got a beautiful right-handed swing and he's got great bat speed," Mainieri said. "... He hits the ball hard. He hits it to all fields and [has] good pitch recognition. As you might imagine, he's seen a lot of breaking balls and off-speed pitches throughout his career, and I think it's helped him in his development as a hitter to recognize pitches. But trying to sneak a fastball by him is virtually impossible because of his bat speed."

FINDING MR. RIGHT 

Dan O'Dowd, the general manager of the Colorado Rockies from 1999-2014, had two top-five picks during his tenure in Denver. In 2006 the Rockies selected Stanford right-handed pitcher Greg Reynolds with the second overall pick, and in 2013 the team selected Oklahoma right-hander Jon Gray, who has been a part of the Rockies' rotation for parts of the past four seasons, with the third overall pick.

O'Dowd is prouder of the process that led to Gray. Long Beach State infielder Evan Longoria was the top player on the Rockies' board in 2006, but they opted for Reynolds because of the dearth of starting pitching depth in the organization. The Rockies thought they were covered on the left side of the infield; not only had they drafted Troy Tulowitzki a year earlier, but they had Garrett Atkins, Ian Stewart and Jeff Baker as well.

"The lesson learned out of that is that you never take based upon need," said O'Dowd, now an analyst for MLB Network. "You always take who you think is the most impactful, talented player that you have evaluated a particular way because ultimately, that's the sustainability. That will make the draft a good draft."

O'Dowd said teams with high picks typically start to zero in on potential targets the summer before the draft once it becomes obvious the major-league team's season is heading in the wrong direction. However, the Orioles' front office was overhauled this past offseason, and general manager Mike Elias, hired in November, is taking on a large role in the club's preparation for the June draft.

O'Dowd said teams evaluate draft targets through traditional scouting and analytical studies, as well as doing background work on the player's character and medical history.

"What you try to do is check off all the questions within each of those silos so you have a complete look at the player from every possible prism that there could be," O'Dowd said.

Jim Duquette, the New York Mets' GM in 2004 and the Orioles' vice president of baseball operations from 2005-2007, is intrigued by what advances Elias and assistant general manager Sig Mejdal will make regarding the analytical and research side of the draft. 

TrackMan -- a radar system that measures a batted ball's exit velocity, a pitched ball's spin rate and more -- has been installed at college ballparks across the country and at the USA Baseball and Perfect Game facilities used for high school events. In turn, TrackMan and other sports technology can be used to help evaluate the chance of an adolescent developing into an impact player at the big-league level.

"What I'm curious about is there's more sports tech than we've ever seen right now, and there are ways to measure even athleticism now that you didn't have even two years ago," said Duquette, a host on SiriusXM's MLB Network Radio. "That landscape has changed. How much are they going to incorporate that? Because they're tech-savvy, obviously. ... I expect that that's going to be a big part of the decision making."

The Orioles can also take advantage of the second-highest draft bonus pool in the league. Baltimore will be allotted about $13.8 million to sign its draftees from the top 10 rounds, according to Baseball America, with a slot value of approximately $8.4 million assigned to the first pick in the draft. 

Teams can use their bonus pools creatively to coax value out of all corners of the draft. The Houston Astros did that shrewdly during Elias and GM Jeff Luhnow's first year with the club in 2012. Houston selected shortstop Carlos Correa with the top pick in the draft, paid him significantly less than slot value and used the savings to sign right-hander Lance McCullers and infielder Rio Ruiz, two well-regarded high school talents with strong college commitments.

What it will cost to sign the top pick will be a consideration for the Orioles as well, according to Ben Reiter, the author of "Astroball: The New Way To Win It All," which details the Astros' rise from worst to first.

"Once they have all the information, it's going to be Mike and Sig and maybe a couple other advisers who are ultimately going to make this call, and interesting to me, they always kind of make it the morning of the draft," Reiter said. "Things are really undecided until as late as that, if not even into the afternoon. It's really a fluid process right up until the guy's name is called."

Issue 254: Orioles Draft (illustration)
Credit: John Pennisi for PressBox

FACE OF THE REBUILD 

The Orioles won the most regular-season games in the American League from 2012-2016, and in 2014, had their highest average attendance since 2005. Manny Machado, Nick Markakis, Matt Wieters and Zack Britton were drafted and developed by the organization, then became keys to the club's success and fan favorites to boot. Adam Jones, whose impact in the community matched his achievements on the field while he played for the club from 2008-2018, was the face of the franchise for much of his tenure in Baltimore.

Those players are all gone now, and it's unclear whether any players on the current big-league team will be around when the Orioles next field a competitive club. The No. 1 pick in June could not only be the first building block to the next era of winning baseball, but also a player fans can wrap their arms around.

"That player is going to have to be someone that has both the personality and that contagious enthusiasm that other people want to be around," O'Dowd said, "because he is going to wear a little bit of a mantra that just goes beyond his performance on the field. That's going to be very, very important for that organization as they move along."

"This is the player that will be the opening statement, in many ways, of the new regime in Baltimore," Reiter said. "They're drafting for nothing less than a cornerstone and the face of the rebuilding effort."

The consensus top prospect currently in the Orioles' farm system is left-handed pitcher DL Hall, who was drafted 21st overall by Baltimore in 2017. After posting a 2.10 ERA and striking out 100 hitters in 94.1 innings in 2018, Hall has established himself as the crown jewel of a thin farm system. 

Hall admitted there's pressure associated with being a first-round pick, mostly due to the expectations of outsiders, but he believes being the face of the rebuild will be a "huge opportunity" for the Orioles' top pick.

"It's going to change a kid's life to be able to have that stamp on it," Hall said. "... I think that it's going to be life-changing, for sure, and I think that you've just got to see it as more of an opportunity to do something great versus an opportunity to try to deal with a lot of pressure."

Pressure is what Ben McDonald felt from all angles when he walked into the Orioles' clubhouse for the first time 30 years ago. McDonald, though, settled in. He pitched for the Orioles from 1989-1995 and established himself as a mid-rotation starter in the early '90s, going 58-53 with a 3.89 ERA as an Oriole.

Though Mickey Tettleton -- with whom McDonald became friends -- made the initial jarring comment toward McDonald when he walked into the clubhouse for the first time, another interaction stood out, too. Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. gave McDonald advice that turned out to be prescient, and it may still resonate ahead of the June draft.

"Go out and bust your butt every day. Be the hardest worker on the field," McDonald remembered Ripken saying. "If you can do that, with your talent level, the results will be there and people will respect that in the end, especially here in Baltimore. 

"Baltimore's a blue-collar city that if you go out and bust your butt and you try hard every day, you be the hardest worker, everything's going to be fine. And dadgummit, wasn't he right."

Photo Credits:  Adley Rutschman, Bobby Witt Jr. and Andrew Vaughn: Courtesy of USA Baseball;  Ben McDonald: Courtesy of the Baltimore Orioles;  Illustration: John Pennisi for PressBox

Issue 254: May 2019