Everything seemed to be lining up perfectly.
The Orioles got their man in 2019, drafting coveted catcher Adley Rutschman with the first overall pick. He had talent and a drive to excel to match. He was going to spend 2019 in the low levels of the minor leagues, get tested against higher competition in 2020, and arrive in Camden Yards in 2021, the face of the franchise. Perfect.
Then the coronavirus came, threw the monkey wrench to end all monkey wrenches into the minor league season, and, regarding this particular player, left the Orioles with a decision to make.
Does the plan stay the same? Or do the Orioles push the ETA back a season?
There’s reason to think the Orioles could go either way. In his encouraging summary of the Orioles’ farm system, MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo writes that there is a good chance Rutschman makes his arrival in 2021. And MLB’s list of the top 30 Orioles prospects still has a 2021 estimation for the Oregon State product, though it’s unclear if that takes the mess that was 2020 into consideration. Either way, score one for the status quo.
Meanwhile, a report from Nathan Ruiz at the Baltimore Sun has Orioles director of player development Matt Blood saying it’s tough to project where prospects (including Rutschman) will begin 2021 given the odd circumstances of this season. And there are other voices out there saying 2021 is too optimistic a target and 2022 is a more reasonable ETA.
It’s a tough call. And each direction has its pros and cons.
The case for delaying Rutschman’s arrival is pretty cut and dried: We’re right where we were last year. Rutschman at the end of 2019 didn’t even have a full minor-league season under his belt. And today, that’s basically still the case. There was instructional ball that went on in camp sites, and Rutschman had spring training with the team, but it’s hard to say he’s a lot more seasoned now than he was when the consensus was that he still needed some more development before he could arrive in Baltimore.
It would make sense for the Orioles to want to see more of a track record of success from Rutschman against Double-A competition or higher before making the move, be it early in the season or later. He hit three home runs in 116 at-bats last year between low-A Aberdeen and single-A Delmarva, and after batting .325 with the IronBirds (.278 before a 5-for-5 finale) hit only .154 in 39 Shorebirds at-bats. Nothing to be afraid of in the long-term, just not the kind of performance on the heels of which you want to send someone to the big club.
Besides, the Orioles saw for themselves what a cautious path can do. The O’s were very patient with Ryan Mountcastle (granted, a very good prospect but not the potential franchise-changer Rutschman is), giving him four full years in the minors. The result was a player who had passed every test he could face, and was therefore prepared for the jump up to the major leagues. He batted .333 and was one of the team’s most encouraging stories this season.
On the flip side, the Orioles might not want to wait until Rutschman is 24 (which he’ll become on Feb. 6, 2022) to get him into the big leagues, and his experience in college could justify a quicker ascension. High schoolers typically need the extensive seasoning more than college players, and Rutschman is regarded as such an advanced prospect that he could be able to skip the step-by-step process other prospects (like Mountcastle) had to go through.
Of course, the Orioles could, and probably will, use time to their advantage. They’re not at the point yet of competing for division and American League titles, so there’s no pressure of getting an impact player up to the big club to play in games they need to win (the way there was in 2012 with a 20-year-old Manny Machado).
So with no rush, and Rutschman’s chances of being on the Opening Day roster pretty slim, the Orioles have the freedom to go both routes: call him up if the first month or two of Rutschman’s return to competition look impressive enough, or hold off on the call if there’s any concern that his development has been slowed by missing the 2020 season.
He’ll be up soon enough. It’s just a matter of when, and of adjusting to a change in plans no one could have seen coming.