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High Schoolers in the Draft? It’s Worked for O’s So Far…

Coby Mayo
photo: Eric Garfield
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With the MLB Draft about three weeks away, the excitement around it has started to rise. Mock Drafts are everywhere across the internet; analysts and scouts are trying to cram every last bit of info they can in those mocks, all while agents and GMs scramble to figure out what exactly each player’s cost will be. It is a wild time to be a baseball fan if you follow the Draft. There is so much intrigue with any Draft of any major sport, but Baseball’s Draft is just different.

You not only have to scout a player and see where he fits on and off the field, but GMs also have to consider just how much these players will demand of their slot value and how to spend their money.

As much as fans wish money wouldn’t play a part in this process, it always does because talented high schoolers can use the threat of going to college to get the most money they can and teams have to respect that and plan accordingly. I am not saying these prospects don’t deserve to get paid; don’t get it twisted. Prospects have more baseball talent than I will ever have and deserve to ask for the most money they want. It is just that when this happens, teams have formulas that go against giving up the majority of the slot money to one player, and the best talent on the board gets tossed aside for someone else.

It happens nearly every year in the MLB Draft as a talented high school prospect asks for more money than a team is willing to spend, leading to a fall in the Draft. Sometimes it takes the prospect out of the draft and he heads to College.

High school talent doesn’t just fall because of money either – it is a hazardous field to pick from. The upside is there, but the floor can also be much lower. These prospects often end up being very hit-or-miss, and given the nature of the Draft, they are misses more often than not.

This is all to say that high school talent is risky, but if a team figures out the puzzle, the upside can be gigantic. The Orioles under Mike Elias are one of these teams. In these last three Drafts, the Orioles have gotten raw high school talent that they developed into high-level prospects, some becoming better than some scouts ever thought possible. So today, I wanted to break down that talent and show what the front office valued in these prospects that will lead them into the 2022 Draft.

2019 Draft: Gunnar Henderson and Darnell Hernaiz

The Orioles started their run of excellence with high schoolers right from the start of Elias’ tenure. Gunnar Henderson was a prospect that most publications at the time liked. He was a late riser in the Alabama high school rankings and won his state’s Gatorade Player of the Year award. Gunnar was a lanky shortstop who was getting stronger by the day and was producing a lot of gap-to-gap power as he ended his high school career. Many outlets had him ranked as a top 25 talent in 2019 and expected him to go in the first round, which didn’t happen. Gunnar was committed to the University of Auburn, where his older brother was playing, and the commitment scared off teams in the first, so he was available at the Orioles’ pick in the Comp round at number 42. The Orioles had to give him over-slot money to get him out of his commitment, but it turned out to be wise because Gunnar’s talent was well worth it. Gunnar has been nothing short of incredible ever since he was drafted. As I write this article, he just turned 21 today and just got off hitting for the cycle. Elias called Gunnar a “Flagship Player” to the developmental team, and I couldn’t agree more. Gunnar is the reason why you bet on high school talent. His upside at 42 was too high to pass up, and he is paying off big time.

Darnell Hernaiz was nearly the exact opposite of Gunnar. He wasn’t a well-known prospect and didn’t flash as much early on as Henderson did. Hernaiz has been a slow developer, but he has finally started to hit his stride this year as he is currently in High – A putting up respectable offensive numbers, with his defense consistently getting high marks.

This haul shows the main upside of picking high school talent. With Adley Rutschman graduating and Grayson Rodriguez‘s injury, Gunnar has become the best overall talent in the farm system. At the same time, Hernaiz has been a grinder who has had to work his way up through the system and has shown improvement all along the road.

2020 Draft: Coby Mayo and Carter Baumler

If 2019 set the trend for talent acquisition, then 2020 showed what you should value in high school players. Baltimore went under-slot with their first-round pick, so they had a lot of leftover money to spend. Coby Mayo and Carter Baumler could have had much higher rises, but those seasons were shortened by COVID-19. Mayo was a specimen of a prospect. He was listed at 6-5, 215 pounds, with a long swing that produced massive power with a cannon of an arm. Baumler was a pitcher with good stuff and control that couldn’t get enough looks during his rise as a senior. These prospects weren’t ranked very high at all. They would probably be lucky to be ranked in the top 100 because of how late risers were affected by the shortened season. The Orioles got both by giving them above-slot bonuses to get them away from the University of Florida and TCU, respectively.

[Related: What is “Going Under Slot” and Why Do Teams Do It?]

This haul is a reminder of just how much of a double-edged sword high school talent is. Mayo and Baumler are talented, but injuries have slowed both down. Mayo missed last year’s first half, and Baumler missed all of last year with Tommy John Surgery. This year both have impressed. Mayo is showing off his power, underrated defense, and special arm. He just got promoted to Double-A, Bowie, and is on the fast track to make an impact in 2023 in the majors. Baumler has been on a strict innings limit coming off of TJS but has looked good in his limited starts.

If this class showed anything, it’s that you bet on high upside talent undervalued for whatever reason and be patient. Mayo offers why betting on this talent can be so exciting, because he flashes the tools that excite people. Power, defense, and arm strength are the attributes you should be betting on in the draft, especially if swings and body back up those skills. In contrast, Baumler shows how patience can be the best thing possible with these high schoolers, especially with injuries. Being patient with Baumler gives him more time to rehab, get stronger for 2023 and beyond, and teach him how to deal with injuries, which is important. The lessons learned with this class are to be patient and bet on the upside if talent falls.

2021 Draft: Creed Willems

2021 saw Elias’ lowest number of high school picks, as the Orioles signed college sophomores aplenty. Creed Willems is a high school catcher with huge raw power and a cannon of an arm who fell due to a commitment, which the Orioles signed him out of. Willems is going through some struggles offensively right now as he is still figuring out how to tap into his raw power and build consistency. Willems also shows that patience goes well beyond injuries. You have to be patient with talent like these prospects; not every prospect will hit the ground running. Willems is extremely raw right now, and he might just need an adjustment year.

So what do you need if you want high schoolers to succeed?

Upside, Refinement, and Patience. All the prospects show the first, and the organization is showing that it can maximize the latter two.

If you can find a prospect with raw upside and tools that needs a bit of refinement and have the patience to deal with injuries and struggles, you have cracked the code of developing high schoolers.

With that said, the last thing to talk about is how this relates to the 2022 Draft. I think the Orioles will have a balanced Draft of high schoolers and college players, but it will be more geared toward high school than in 2021. I believe Elias will go hard at the top with the talent like in 2019. Look, this might be the last time he will get the number one pick for a while (fingers crossed). They are playing a lot better this year, and the lottery is coming next year. The Orioles need to maximize value, and the way to do that is to get high upside high schoolers.

Luckily, this Draft is full of them. I still haven’t come off Druw Jones, but any of the four high schoolers at the top would make me happy enough. The Orioles still have a ton of picks later, too, and I already wrote an article about that talent, who were all high schoolers.

In conclusion, taking prospects with raw tools and upside with a need for refinement and a little patience can lead teams to tap into immense talent. The Orioles should use this strategy to make a 2022 Draft class their best yet.

Thank you for reading, and come back next week for another Draft article.

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