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Draft Spots on the Line When O’s Meet Royals

Kansas City's Kauffman Stadium.
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Tonight, your Baltimore Orioles will begin a three-game set in Kansas City. On a grand scale, it may be the most important series the Orioles have left this season.

In full-on rebuild mode, the 2019 Orioles are rubbing some fans the wrong way with their play of late. Ironically, it’s been a little too good.

Despite Wednesday’s demolition at the hands of Max Scherzer and the Nationals, the O’s have won five of eight, including a recent three-game win streak against playoff-caliber teams Washington and Tampa Bay. They also took two of three from the Royals before that.

Now 44-89 on the season, the Orioles’ .331 winning percentage is well ahead of the MLB-worst Tigers (39-91; .300 W%) and just 2.5 games behind Kansas City (47-87; .351 W%).

In other words, they are unlikely to get the first-overall pick in next year’s draft and, if they don’t stop playing so respectably, won’t be picking second either.

Before delving into tonight’s game, a little backdrop about what’s at stake in this series.

Falling down the draft order in 2020 could have bigger repercussions than most years. There’s no such thing as a sure-fire baseball prospect. The #1 pick in the MLB draft is not nearly as valuable as the top pick in the NBA or NFL. But the O’s know where they’re deficient – the rotation – and the top pitcher in 2020, Emerson Hancock (University of Georgia), appears to be a considerably better prospect than any other hurler.

As MLB.com’s Jim Callis wrote, “If Hancock were eligible as a sophomore [in June 2019], he would have been the first pitcher selected.” He’s the only pitcher who rates at a 50 on FanGraphs’ “Future Value” chart.

Falling behind the Tigers isn’t the worst thing. They are in dire need of offense and will likely take a hitter #1 overall. The Royals could go either way, though, and missing out on the best pitcher in 2020 could be something the franchise regrets for years to come.

As for this weekend’s series, KC is trending down, way down, mired in a 4-10 skid. They haven’t won a series since taking two of two from Atlanta in mid July. If Baltimore sweeps the three-game set, they will suddenly be ahead of the Royals in the standings and fall to third in the draft order.

Game 1 on Friday (8:15 PM ET) will see Baltimore’s lone All Star, rookie John Means (3.61 ERA, 1.18 WHIP), take the mound against Eric Skoglund.

That’s bad news for any Baltimore fans who are more interested in future success than present-day wins. Indeed, the Orioles are rare favorites based on the current game odds.

Skoglund sports a 5.90 career ERA and 1.42 WHIP, and will be making just his second start of the season.

Means, meanwhile, has been Baltimore’s best starter all year, and pitched well against the Royals just ten days ago. His final line was five innings, four hits, and two earned runs, but that doesn’t do justice to how well he pitched. He was spotless through five innings (no hits, one walk) before giving up four singles in the top of the sixth while trying to go a third time through the order.

Gabriel Ynoa gave up two seventh-inning homers after that and the O’s fell 5-4. Yet, on the whole, Baltimore’s relievers are performing much better of late. Over the last 14 days, the pen has a 4.35 ERA and miniscule 3.49 FIP (Fielding-Independent Pitching), which is fifth-best in the majors.

Compare that to their season-long performance: 6.15 ERA, 5.61 FIP, both dead-last of 30 teams.

The uptick from several individual players on the roster is, of course, a nice omen for the years to come. But it remember that every win now could mean missing out on draft day. So no matter what happens in this series, there’s going to be something to cheer about and something to rue.

Such is life to the O’s in 2019.

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