MLB Prospect Watch: Previewing Orioles’ draft strategy for No. 1 overall pick selection

Major League Baseball’s amateur draft won’t get underway until July 17, but that hasn’t stopped the rumor mill from cranking as it pertains to the Baltimore Orioles and their preferred strategy with the no. 1 pick last week, Baseball America reported on the industry’s belief that the Orioles were “targeting” Louisiana State third baseman Jacob Berry (ranked by CBS Sports as the eighth-best prospect in this class in the spring) “for an under-slot deal” before Berry broke a finger in batting practice. (He’s since remained sidelined, though his return this season has not been ruled out.)

While it’s unclear if or how the injury will impact Baltimore’s plans, no one should be surprised if the Orioles select someone other than Georgia prep outfielder Druw Jones, now widely considered to be the best player in the class. After all, the Orioles are generally managed by Mike Elias, one of the architects of the “portfolio approach.” Let’s break down what that entails and how it could impact the top of the draft.

The short version goes like this. Since MLB introduced stricter rules about draft spending, teams have placed more emphasis on the zero-sum nature of the process. This has led some teams, including those that Elias has been part of in Baltimore and Houston, to question if the standard approach — taking the top talent regardless of their financial ask — is the optimal approach. In turn, these teams have experimented by taking a lesser (if still good) player upfront with the understanding that said player will require a lower signing bonus, giving the team additional funds to use later.

For an example of this practice at work, consider the 2012 draft. That’s when the Astros took Carlos Correa over Byron Buxton with the no. 1 pick Correa signed for $1.2 million less than Buxton did, allowing the Astros to funnel the difference into subsequent picks, including right-hander Lance McCullers Jr., third baseman Rio Ruizand outfielder Brett Phillips. Correa and McCullers became core pieces for the Astros, while Ruiz and Phillips served the organization as outgoing parts of trades.

Now, that’s but a single data point, and it doesn’t mean the portfolio approach is the right call in every situation. (The Astros would’ve been just fine if they had taken Buxton and met his ask.) You can grasp, however, why teams would embrace the portfolio approach when there’s not a clear talent gap between a set of given players. You can also grasp why clubs who lean hard into probabilistic analysis, or who view the draft as a game of luck, would favor the portfolio route. To put it into basketball terms, a team using the portfolio approach will take the same number of shots as a team that’s not; the former, though, believes himself to be taking higher-percentage shots, thereby making it more likely to put up a greater point total.

So, what does all of this mean for the upcoming draft? We think Elias’ approach to his first three classes in Baltimore offer some hints. Below, you’ll find a table that includes the following information: who the Orioles took and when; how much they spent overall in the draft; and what percentage of that was given to their first pick:

If the industry speculation reported by Baseball America is proven correct, and the Orioles use the No. 1 pick as part of an underslot agreement, then it appears they’ll target spending around 40 percent of their bonus budget on that player. Given their legal pool amount, that would work out to a signing bonus of about $7 million; the no 1 pick’s slot value, for reference, is nearly $9 million. As such, the Orioles would have an extra $2 million to use throughout the remainder of the draft.

It’s to be seen who the Orioles will end up with, but you don’t have to go far back in history to observe a well-executed portfolio approach at the top of the draft. Last summer, after selecting Henry Davis with the top pick and handing him the fifth-highest signing bonus of the first round, the Pittsburgh Pirates redistributed the savings to land Anthony Solometo, Lonnie Whiteand Bubba Chandler — each of whom ranked in CBS Sports’ pre-draft top 50.

There’s no guarantee that the Orioles will land a similar haul, or that their selections will end up being better than Jones. But then, there’s seldom a certain quantity in the draft; most of the time, you’re just playing the odds.

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