For Orioles, Yovani Gallardo worth the risk ... and the draft pick

BALTIMORE -- Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of Beau Hale; most people outside of Baltimore haven’t. Heck, most people in Baltimore haven’t heard of him, either.

That’s because, despite being selected by the Baltimore Orioles with the 14th overall pick in the 2000 Major League Baseball draft, Hale never made it to the majors. Never made it past Double-A, in fact.

In the 15 drafts since then, there haven’t been a whole lot of overwhelming success stories borne out of any team's 14th overall pick. Jose Fernandez is one (2011). Jason Heyward is another (2007). Aaron Hill and Billy Butler (’03 and ’04, respectively) make the cut, too. But aside from those guys, the millennial members of the Fourteen Fraternity haven’t done much, except provide yet another sobering reminder that baseball’s amateur draft, by and large, tends to be a crapshoot.

Which brings us to Yovani Gallardo.

On Saturday, the Orioles reportedly reached an agreement with the free-agent hurler on a three-year deal. In addition to the $35 million they’ll pay Gallardo, the Birds must forfeit their top pick in this June’s draft by virtue of the fact that Gallardo received and rejected a qualifying offer from his old team, the Rangers.

That lost pick -- which in Baltimore’s case is the 14th overall -- helps explain why Gallardo, a former All-Star who has started at least 30 games in seven straight seasons and is just 29 years old, went so long without striking a deal: Teams prefer free agents who (A) don’t come with draft strings attached (think Johnny Cueto or Scott Kazmir) or BB) have so much star power that it’s easy to look past said draft strings (Zack Greinke). Just because Gallardo doesn’t fall into either category doesn’t mean the Orioles made a bad move by signing him, though.

The MLB draft is an inexact science at best. The further down the draft board you go, the more inexact it gets. It’s also worth noting that the Orioles aren’t exactly the poster franchise for draft success. The list of their first-round draft picks over the past couple decades, especially when it comes to hurlers, is filled with more busts than the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In fact, it’s that very futility that has them in their current pitching-poor position. In other words, any assumption that the O’s were going to crush it with this year’s 14th pick is an unsafe one, to say the least.

Does that mean that GM Dan Duquette should just squander the pick on any old free agent? Hardly. But Gallardo’s more than just a guy. Yes, the numbers suggest that he’s not the same pitcher he was back in 2011, when he topped 200 strikeouts en route to winning 17 games for Milwaukee and finishing seventh in the NL Cy Young voting. His velocity and strikout rate are down. His line drive and walk rates are up. In the second half of last season, he allowed baserunners as if his contract contained an incentive for doing so. Despite that, he finished 2015 with a 4.1 WAR that was higher than that of any Baltimore pitcher.

Had he been an Oriole last season, his 33 starts and his 4.01 FIP (fielding independent pitching) would’ve led the rotation, and his 3.42 ERA would’ve ranked second, just behind Wei-Yin Chen (3.34). His ground ball-to-fly ball ratio has been above 1.00 each of the past three seasons, including last year, when his 1.03 would have been -- you guessed it -- the best among O’s starters. In a homer-happy park like Camden Yards, that matters.

But what really matters is this: The Orioles needed starting pitching in a bad, bad way. And while nobody would confuse Gallardo with Greinke or David Price at this point in their respective careers, they also wouldn’t confuse him with Mike Wright, Tyler Wilson, Vance Worley, Odrisamer Despaigne or any of the other fifth-starter options they were considering. Assuming Gallardo’s healthy (despite last year’s red flags, it’s hard to think otherwise given how stringent Baltimore is when it comes to medical reviews), they get a front-of-the-rotation arm -- a proven and dependable hurler who’s just as good, if not better, than any starter they already had.

If he’s not healthy? Then the O’s just wasted a whole bunch of money, and the 14th overall pick -- which, in the end, might not be all that different than simply wasting a whole bunch of money.