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Orioles prospect season in review: Adley Rutschman

Despite the relentless hype, the Orioles’ golden boy somehow keeps defying expectations.

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2021 Sirius XM Futures Game Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images

It’s hard—no, impossible—to imagine the pressure that a 23-year-old young man picked first in the MLB draft in July 2019, gifted a record $8.1 million signing bonus, consistently ranked the No. 1 prospect in all of baseball and tabbed as the savior of a talent-, playoffs-, and win-starved franchise faces on the daily.

If it all bothers Adley Rutschman, he doesn’t show it. When he’s asked whether the pressure gets to be too much sometimes, Rutschman always gives some extremely relatable and mature answer. He’ll credit his dad (a coach for over 40 years) for not forcing baseball on him, allowing him to develop his own passion for the game. He may also talk about how much he admires Mike Trout, who wears the “Best Player in the Game” label with humility day in and day out. Quite often he’ll praise the Orioles organization for helping players to focus on “the process,” stay within themselves, and control what they can control, their own game.

Is this guy for real? Sometimes it doesn’t seem like it. Asked by MLB’s Joe Trezza to name something he’s bad at, Adley answered: texting. Yeah, texting. Something about it makes him anxious. (So now you know: if you want to reach Adley Rutschman, make sure to FaceTime him instead, OK?)

Despite the sky-high expectations, since joining the Orioles after a storied career with the Oregon State Beavers (winning a national title in 2018 and Collegiate Player of the Year honors in 2019 to go with a .352 career average and 1.032 OPS over three seasons), Adley Rutschman has done exactly nothing to estrange himself from the Baltimore fanbase.

After five games with the GCL Orioles in fall 2019, Rutschman was quickly promoted to Class-A Short Season Aberdeen, where he slashed .325/.413/.481 in 20 games before joining Delmarva for 12 more. The power numbers were a little low, with four home runs, a triple, and eight doubles in 37 games … but it was just 37 games.

Then COVID-19 happened and instead of a full first professional season, Rutschman settled for two-and-a-half months at the Orioles’ alternate site in Bowie. The word on Rutschman’s camp performance, according to MLB’s Jonathan Mayo: “Stop us if you’ve heard this one, but Rutschman is really, really good at baseball.” Perhaps no surprise, Rutschman was the best player in camp. According to Orioles director of player development Matt Blood, the catcher got off to a slow start, but he “likes to tinker, make incremental improvements.” And once he figured out a couple of “very micro things” in his swing, he “exploded and took off.”

Perhaps this is why, entering his first full professional season this fall, Rutschman didn’t miss a beat. He thumped Double-A pitching, hitting .271 with a .392 OBP, a .901 OPS and 18 home runs in 80 games for the Bowie Baysox. After he took part in the MLB All-Star Futures Game in July, headlines started piling up to the effect of, “Why is Adley Rutschman still at Double-A?” The Orioles finally took action in August, promoting their top prospect to Triple-A Norfolk. There, Rutschman’s average and OBP only got better, rising to .312 and .405, respectively, over 43 games with the Tides.

All the evidence coming out of his time in the minors is that he’s looked as good with the glove as with the bat. CC’s Drew Bonifant wrote yesterday that if Adley is the Orioles’ big hope at the plate, Grayson Rodriguez is that guy on the mound. The two have developed a strong rapport and penchant for hijinks, and Rodriguez’s own arrival this year as MLB’s No. 1 pitching prospect (thanks to a 2.36 ERA across two levels with a silly 129 strikeouts in 94 innings) may have something to do with his battery mate. Whether it’s providing feedback between innings or just providing a big target, Adley is always picking his pitchers up, according to teammates Rodriguez, Mike Baumann and DL Hall.

Two questions remain. One, when will Rutschman make his debut with Baltimore? In season-ending remarks, O’s GM Mike Elias confirmed that Rutschman (and Rodriguez) will be invited to spring training, but wouldn’t say more. You’d assume the Orioles will sign some steady veteran catcher this winter while giving Rutschman the chance to crack the roster with a strong spring.

The second is, what kind of ceiling can we expect from this guy? Truly, reading what professional baseball writers have to say about Adley Rutschman is like nothing else:

MLB Pipeline gushes: “Sometimes a player enters his Draft year as the front-runner to be the No. 1 overall pick and then doesn’t live up to expectations. Then there are players like Rutschman.”

Keith Law says Rutschman’s “power/patience package” give him a “30 homer upside” with the chance for “some down-ballot MVP years.”

Just Baseball says: “Adley has the kind of special skill set where essentially any comp isn’t crazy. Name a catcher and there’s a reasonable hope that he can attain that ceiling. Catchers who impact the game on both sides of the ball are just too rare nowadays.”

Fangraphs enthuses (this one is worth reading in full): “Rutschman is the total package, a physical monster who also has superlative baseball acumen and leadership qualities. … I realize readers will have Matt Wieters flashbacks because Rutschman’s frame and switch-hitting, upright stance are dead ringers for Wieters’, but this guy’s blood courses through his veins at a much different temperature.”

Last but not least, there’s the franchise-boosting hope dangled by The Athletic’s Jim Bowden: “Rutschman is the best catching prospect I’ve seen since Buster Posey, and someday soon he will pass J.T. Realmuto and Salvador Perez to become the best overall catcher in the sport. Rutschman’s makeup and leadership are impressive, and he can hit with power from both sides of the plate. He has a great work ethic, calls a good game, frames pitches extremely well and has strong communication skills. The Orioles have been waiting for the next face of the franchise since Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. retired; Rutschman will be that player for the next decade.”

Yes, too much hype can be a bad thing. So let’s tamp down expectations this offseason while we shovel some snow or something. It’ll be years, still, before the Orioles are a competitive team, but come spring, Orioles fans will definitely have a reason to watch.

Previous 2021 Orioles prospect reviews: Ryan McKenna, Alexander Wells, Brnovich/Peek/Pinto, Diaz/Bannon, Tyler Nevin, Vavra/Ortiz/Servideo, Zac Lowther, DL Hall/Rom, Hernandez/Basallo, Jahmai Jones, Hudson Haskin, Bradish/Smith, Hernaiz/Mayo, Cowser/Norby, Adam Hall, Kyle Stowers, Mike Baumann, Jordan Westburg, Gunnar Henderson, Grayson Rodriguez