Back in June, the Orioles had the number one overall pick in MLB’s Amateur Draft for only the second time in franchise history. This selection carried added importance because it was also the first pick for the team with Mike Elias as executive vice president and general manager. Whomever was chosen would have unbelievably high expectations for their future and become the center-point of a massive franchise overhaul.
The Orioles decided that the right person for that pick was Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman.
Rutschman was the consensus top pick prior to the start of the college baseball season, and he cemented his status as the best player in the country with his performance for one of the NCAA’s top programs.
Across the board, his numbers during his junior season improved upon his already impressive stats from his junior year. Rutschman slashed .411/.575/.751 with 17 home runs, 10 doubles, 76 walks and 38 strikeouts in his final collegiate action. The switch-hitter was productive from both sides of the plate in college and was already considered a mature defender behind the dish going into the draft. In short, the total package, exactly the type of player that goes number one overall.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that the Orioles didn’t have other options with the pick. Reports at the time indicated that the team was also seriously looking at high school shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. (who went second overall to the Royals), California first baseman Andrew Vaughn (third overall to the White Sox) and Vanderbilt outfielder JJ Bleday (fourth overall to the Marlins). But when the time came, it was Rutschman that was headed for Baltimore.
There was no drama involved with Rutschman joining the organization. He signed weeks ahead of the July 12 deadline and did so for a record bonus of $8.1 million. That actually saved the team a bit of money as the allotted value of the pick was $8,415,300. This allowed them to sign second round pick Gunnar Henderson for a little bit above slot value, which was expected.
Rutschman began his professional career with the Gulf Coast Orioles on July 20. He stayed at that level for just a week, recording two hits, including a home run, in 14 at-bats. From there, he moved up to short-season Aberdeen, which is where he would spend the most time in 2019.
The Oregon State product played in 20 games for the IronBirds. Things began slow. He was 0-for-5 in his debut on July 27 and batted just .184 through his first ten games in the New York-Penn League. But then he caught fire. Over his final 10 games at this level, Rutschman recorded a hit in every game, raised his batting average to .325 and finished up his stay with a 5-for-5 performance that included a triple and a home run.
That earned Rutschman yet another promotion, this time to Salisbury to join the Delmarva Shorebirds, who were in the midst of tearing up the Low-A South Atlantic League. Unfortunately for the O’s top prospect, his introduction to the Sally League was a little rough.
Through his first four games with Delmarva, Rutschman went 0-for-11 with three walks and three strikeouts. It didn’t get much better from there as he finished the season batting .154/.261/.333 with two home runs as a Shorebird.
The 2019 season was not about getting Rutschman to dominate his competition, though. There is plenty of time for that. Instead, the Orioles just wanted to get him acclimated to professional baseball. He played 37 games at three different levels in less that two months time. Mission: accomplished.
Rutschman is considered the O’s top prospect across the industry. Both FanGraphs and MLB Pipeline also consider him to be the top catching prospect in all of baseball and the sixth-best prospect overall. This up-and-down debut will do nothing to shake the scout’s opinions of him. He’s a blue chip type of player and will be one for quite some time.
The expectation is that Rutschman will zoom through the minors, but it won’t be because the Orioles force him. The organization is in no rush to compete. There seems to be an understanding between the front office and the fan base that 2020 will be another ugly season at the major league level, and they don’t expect to compete in 2021 either. That buys Rutschman a lot of time to work his way up the ladder while Elias adds young talent around him.
Given his struggles to end the season, Rutschman could find his way back to Delmarva to begin the 2020 season, but his stay there could be relatively short. The Orioles new braintrust seems to be big on making players “graduate” from each level. Their top pick needs to do a bit more with the stick as a Shorebird before he can make the next jump.
As a college hitter taken number one overall, the sky is the limit for how far Rutschman gets in 2020. Of course, the Orioles will not push him all the way to Baltimore next season, but any level below that feels possible. What’s more likely is that the team stays conservative. Expect him to see a decent amount of time in Delmarva and High-A Frederick with a possible cameo in Double-A Bowie. The soonest he will make his Orioles debut would be sometime in 2021.
Something else to keep an eye out for is how often Rutschman catches next season. Elias has been vocal about limiting the innings behind the plate for the soon-to-be-22-year-old while in the minors. The reason is that the team feels like Rutschman is close to major league ready with the glove. So that could mean some time spent at first base or DH in order to get at bats while giving his knees a rest.
Rutschman is already receiving comparisons to Matt Wieters. It’s easy to see why. Both were top picks. Both were catchers. Both switch hit. And both were part of the Orioles organization. Rutschman’s ceiling may be even higher. But if the O’s end up with a few All-Star appearances, a couple of Gold Gloves and several playoff appearances out of Rutschman like they did with Wieters, then it’s safe to say it was a successful pick.