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Orioles 2021 prospect preview: Adley Rutschman

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He’s the future and one of the best prospects in all of baseball, and he’ll be in Baltimore soon. The only question is how soon?

Baltimore Orioles v Atlanta Braves Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

In the Orioles’ farm system, it seems, there are the other prospects. And then there’s Adley Rutschman.

Rutschman is the one who has been stamped “can’t miss” since his sophomore year at Oregon State. The one who experts said was a slam dunk as the No. 1 overall pick in 2019. The one who has either been tabbed the best prospect in all of baseball, or at least among an elite few, since his first professional at-bat.

Prospects like DL Hall and Grayson Rodriguez and Heston Kjerstad and Jordan Westburg are going to be pieces on what everyone hopes will be the next winning Orioles team. But Rutschman is the man in the middle, the one whom all the optimism revolves around.

And as the start of the 2021 minor league season draws closer, it becomes clear that Rutschman’s Baltimore debut is approaching. But how quickly?

Rutschman joined the Orioles organization when he was drafted with that top overall pick in 2019, after hitting .408 and then .411 with slugging percentages of .628 and then .751 in his last two years at Oregon State. Rutschman joined Aberdeen in low-A ball soon after his selection, batting .325 in 20 games and going 5-for-5 in his final appearance with the IronBirds.

His next stop was Delmarva at the next tier of Single-A, where he batted .154 in 12 games. The season ended, COVID came months later, and we haven’t seen him in a regular-season game at any level since.

Despite the lost 2020 season, and his sluggish snapshot the summer before in Delmarva, the arrow is pointing as directly upwards as it ever has with him. In addition to maintaining his spot atop the rankings of Orioles prospects, Rutschman comes in at No. 2 in all of baseball, behind only Tampa Bay’s Wander Franco.

Every review of him has been positive. He’s received praise for his work ethic, diligence and leadership, and players both past and present have opined that the Orioles made the right choice. Former pitcher David Hess lent his two cents back in January:

“It’s hard to kind of sum it up in just a short thing, but he’s the real deal. I mean, he understands the game, he’s constantly trying to get better. ... Every time I threw a bullpen or threw to him in one of the sim games down there, he was constantly trying to figure out what he could do better or what we were trying to work on in that situation.”

Physically, the skills still stand out. His MLB.com scouting report refers to an “incredibly advanced approach,” with an ability to hit to all fields from both sides of the plate and plenty of power to his swing. Defensively, he’s smart and calls a good game, is a steady backstop, and has a well-honed knack for handling pitchers.

If it sounds familiar...well, it should. These were the same things we heard from 2007-09 about Matt Wieters, who was the fifth overall selection, was also a switch-hitting catcher with power, and who was also the subject of massive hype (who will ever forget the lore attributed to the “switch-hitting Jesus?”)

The hope, though, is that the Orioles are on to something bigger with Rutschman than they ended up being with Wieters, who was terrific defensively but never the hitter fans dared themselves to believe they were getting. The hope with Rutschman is that he will be a true middle-of-the-order bat, and though his small sample of pro stats is underwhelming, he’s gained a reputation as being someone who adjusts and acclimates well to higher competition (according again to his MLB scouting report).

So that’s the player who’s on his way to Baltimore. Now, when will he get here?

Had 2020 been a normal season, he might have arrived for good already. Using other position players taken where or near where he was in recent years as a comparison, Rutschman would likely have made his debut either late last year or to start this year, assuming there were no problems with his minor league production. Thanks to COVID, he instead hasn’t had the chance to play competitively in two years, so his progression inevitably was slowed.

Fortunately, however, the Orioles are still trying to push him through the ranks. He’ll start the season at Double-A, often the top training ground for young prospects, and likely reach Camden Yards by the end of the season. Due to both service time management and just the concerns of overwhelming someone who hit .154 at his highest level, the Orioles will look for some success at these higher levels before letting him finally face big-league pitching.

The Orioles’ pace is understandable: This is not someone with whom to get risky or aggressive. This is the franchise. All indications are that he will be ready sooner than later, but take the time that’s on your side and use it to your advantage. If this were a playoff team, perhaps it’s a different story.

Someday, the Orioles will be a playoff team again. Rutschman is who they’re hoping will get them there.