So far, so good in Adley Rutschman’s brief Orioles career.
The franchise’s first No. 1 overall pick in 30 years has looked pretty much the way you would expect a player of his hype to look in his first weeks of professional baseball. Rutschman batted .325 in 20 games with short season Class A squad Aberdeen, and while he’s only gone 1-for-15 (.067) since being called up to Delmarva, slow starts are nothing new with him — he was batting only .167 in his first 24 at-bats with the IronBirds, but hit .462 over his last 39.
Along the way, he’s collected a walk-off hit, gone 5-for-5 in a game, and earned raves for his professionalism and workmanlike approach. The Adley Rutschman era is indeed on its way to Baltimore.
So when will it, and he, arrive?
Obviously, plenty more growing needs to be done. Rutschman still has three more tiers separating him from Camden Yards, and the team is most likely in no rush to bring him to the show.
But looking at some previous players who came into professional baseball the way Rutschman did, we can see if precedent offers any hints.
Other college players taken first overall
Believe it or not, Rutschman was only the third college position player drafted first overall since 2000. Bryce Harper was the first when he was taken by the Nationals out of the College of Southern Nevada in 2010, and Dansby Swanson was the second when the former Vanderbilt shortstop was drafted first by the Diamondbacks in 2015.
Harper, with whom Rutschman has been compared, didn’t have as much college experience as Rutschman did, but was also considered a polished-beyond-his-years supertalent who had pro scouts drooling by the time he was a sophomore in high school. Once in the Nationals’ organization, he spent a full year in the minor leagues before making his debut in April 2012. In that 2011 season, which he split between A and AA ball, he batted .297 with 17 homers and 58 RBI in 109 games. He was batting .333 in 25 AAA games when he finally got the call to the Nationals.
Swanson had a different path altogether, as Arizona traded him away to Atlanta before he’d been in the organization for a full year. Nevertheless, Swanson was in the majors one year later in 2016, called up on Aug. 17 after 105 games at the High A and AA levels. He batted .275 with nine homers and 55 RBI in those games. At the time of his call-up, Atlanta was out of the playoff mix at 44-75, and on its way to a 93-loss season.
Based on these examples, that would peg Rutschman’s arrival — assuming his performance remains up to snuff — at either late 2020 or early 2021.
Other catchers taken highly in the draft
Since 2007, six catchers have been drafted in the top five of the MLB draft. They were Joey Bart (2018, San Francisco, second), Kyle Schwarber (2014, Chicago Cubs, fourth), Mike Zunino (2012, Seattle, third), Tony Sanchez (2009, Pittsburgh, fourth), Buster Posey (2008, San Francisco, fifth) and Matt Wieters (2007, Baltimore, fifth). All six were drafted out of college.
Of the six, three (Schwarber, Zunino and Posey) made their major league debuts the year after their selection. Wieters arrived two years after his selection. Sanchez arrived four years after he was drafted and was out of the game four seasons later. Bart has not made it to the major leagues yet.
The players promoted the season after their selection, however, were in different situations and experienced different results. Schwarber, who played two seasons at Indiana, had everything going for him to warrant a quick call-up. He was demolishing minor league pitching, to the tune of a 1.061 OPS in 2014 and a 1.022 OPS in AA and AAA in 2015, and the Cubs were in a pennant race. He had proven he was ready, and his team had a need.
Posey technically arrived in 2009, but played only seven major league games that year, making his debut on Sept. 11. He was a full-time big leaguer by 2010 and adapted seamlessly, winning the National League Rookie of the Year award for the eventual World Series champions. Posey also raked in the minors, putting up a .902 OPS in 35 AAA games in 2009.
Zunino may be the quintessential player brought up too soon. After batting .360 and putting up a whopping 1.137 OPS in 44 Low A and AA games in 2012, the former Florida Gator was up with the Mariners by the next June. It has panned out poorly, at least in the batter’s box; Zunino has shown power but little discipline at the plate in the majors, and now with the Rays has a career .203 batting average.
The Orioles were conservative with Wieters so as to extend the team’s control of his services; with a .355 average and 1.053 OPS over the course of the 2008 season, split between Frederick and Bowie, he had the stats to get a call-up sooner. But with the Orioles still a ways away from competing, there wasn’t the need for his services sooner rather than later, as was the case with Schwarber and Posey.
So, when could he arrive?
If Rutschman continues to flourish at his coming stops, a call-up for the end of 2020 is possible, but 2021 is probably the most likely — and wisest — scenario.
Rutschman is even with the curve so far in his career. By reaching the Class A level with Delmarva, he’s ahead of the pace of Posey, Wieters and Harper, while behind that of Zunino and Schwarber. A move to AA Bowie is certainly on the table for next year, as well as a boost to AAA Norfolk, a level reached by Posey, Zunino and Schwarber by year No. 2 before him. Harper and Wieters, with whom their teams took a decisively deliberate approach, didn’t reach AAA until their third seasons, by which time the skids were already greased for their promotions.
However, the different competitive circumstances can’t be ignored. Schwarber’s Cubs and Posey’s Giants needed them on their rosters ASAP. The Orioles won’t be good next year, and there won’t be any real value to bringing up Rutschman, aside from a boon at the box office. Even if he comes up and hits .350, it’s a .350 season that would offer little value to the franchise.
Where the urgency is, however, is in the need for Rutschman to succeed. He can’t fail. The Orioles cannot afford for their No. 1 pick and “the best prospect since Bryce Harper” to be a misfire. In this event, the O’s should heed the tale of Zunino, who hopped from college in the spring of 2012 to the majors early in 2013. Calling up a prospect too early risks his getting overwhelmed by the jump in competition and a devastating, often unrecoverable blow to their psyche.
At the same time, however, there’s a price to pay for keeping a player in the minors too long. By 2021, if Elias’s plan is unfolding as hoped, the Orioles will be a noticeably better team, if not a playoff contender. At that point, Rutschman’s place will be with the team, growing alongside the young pitchers who will be joining him. If Rutschman proves he’s major league ready by the end of 2020, the Orioles shouldn’t waste time in bringing him up and letting him do what he was drafted to do.
Hopefully, it’s a win-win scenario, and Rutschman makes it a hard decision for them with his play. And hopefully the Orioles end up making the right one.