It was news that, at face value, seemed to have nothing to do with the Baltimore Orioles.
The Tampa Bay Rays announced Sunday that they were going to be calling up Wander Franco, in time for a series against the Boston Red Sox that begins Tuesday. Franco is Tampa Bay’s super prospect - so super, in fact, that he’s the only one listed ahead of Orioles catcher Adley Rutschman on baseball’s list of top 100 prospects.
And that’s where the Baltimore tie comes in. If Franco got the nod now, how soon will it be until Rutschman gets the call?
Obviously, the circumstances facing the two players are different. Franco’s organization is fighting for the division and is one of the best teams in baseball. Calling him up to Tampa Bay to provide a jolt feels like when the Orioles brought up a 19-year-old Manny Machado in 2012 to aid a team that was in contention and not fading away.
Rutschman, meanwhile, plays for an organization that is simply looking to avoid 100 losses. Or, who knows, perhaps there are some in the organization that wouldn’t mind seeing the loss tally hit triple digits just to secure a better draft pick. Either way, the Orioles aren’t contending this season, so there’s nothing for Rutschman to come in and help salvage.
His performance, though, has done nothing to delay his timeline. Rutschman got the promotion to Double-A Bowie at the start of the season and has been terrific, putting together a .293 batting average, .531 slugging percentage and .961 OPS. His 10 home runs have him ranked fourth in Double-A Northeast, and he’s eighth in OPS and second with 31 runs scored.
These first 40 games of Rutschman’s season have to be encouraging to the Orioles’ front office, especially considering that last year he struggled to a .154 batting average with Delmarva at Single-A. Any thought that his bat was slow developing has been eased, and he’s instead been impressing those around him with his everyday excellence behind and at the plate.
“He’s not one of those guys where you say he’s had a hot week or a hot month. It’s just steady,” Baysox manager Buck Britton said, according to the Baltimore Sun’s Jon Meoli. “...You just continue to look at the numbers and I mean, am I just getting used to it?”
Good praise. And good to know a player the Orioles absolutely have to have hit on is paying out.
But when will he get to Baltimore, and has that target date changed?
Before the year began, speculation was that the 2021 season was not likely on the table for a debut, particularly after COVID-19 took away 2020 as a first full season of minor league competition. Even though his production this season has either met or exceeded expectations, it doesn’t appear that ETA has changed. Meoli laid out the wisdom of not rushing the franchise catcher, mentioning that Rutschman still hasn’t gone through the grind of a full minor league season, and will likely need to show how he handles that before he’s cleared for a trip to the majors.
MLB.com’s Joe Trezza, however, said that the end of this season was a realistic target for Rutschman, and that was before the former Oregon State star began hitting the way he has. Trezza also said that 2020 was a possibility for a Rutschman debut, back when the O’s were flirting with a spot in the expanded playoffs. Suffice to say, when exactly to make the move has been a point of contention.
Comparing Rustchman’s progress with other prospects, with the Orioles and otherwise, it makes sense to wait. Franco spent all of 2019 in the Rays’ organization, and therefore had a full season of minor league experience even before COVID’s arrival. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., the No. 1 prospect in baseball before Franco, spent the entirety of 2017 and 2018 in the minors, reaching as high as Triple-A before debuting in 2019.
The player in Rutschman’s No. 2 spot behind Guerrero, Fernando Tatis Jr., did the same thing: full 2017 and ‘18 seasons in the Padres’ minor leagues before getting the call up to San Diego. Unlike Guerrero, however, Tatis was called up from Double-A, and his performance at that level (.286/.507/.862 in his last extended stint) was a shade below what Rutschman’s has been.
Looking at other Orioles top picks, patience has been the consistent theme. Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall, the first-round picks before Rutschman in 2018 and ‘17, haven’t yet reached the majors (though they have also impressed this season). The last first-round pick to reach the big club, D.J. Stewart, spent all of 2016 and ‘17 in the minors before a call-up in 2018. The last before him, Hunter Harvey, went from 2014-18 in the minors before arriving in 2019, but he has also battled an extensive list of injuries.
The first-rounder before Harvey, Kevin Gausman, was the last Oriole to ride the fast track to the majors. Gausman was selected fourth overall in 2012, and by 2013 was in Triple-A Norfolk and then in Baltimore. Dylan Bundy, the fourth overall pick in 2011, was also in Baltimore by the end of his first full professional season, but that’s when the Orioles were in a competitive position, and looking for their blue-chippers to do something more than be the difference between 98 and 102 losses.
Rutschman’s advantage in terms of a sped-up path to the bigs is his college experience; while players like Guerrero and Tatis were younger, more raw players who needed the seasoning of advanced baseball, Rutschman joined the franchise as more of a finished product. He was the MVP of the College World Series three years ago; he’s been knocking on the door a while now.
Given the way the organization seems content to be patient with its top prospects, however, and the inability of the big club to make an early call-up a tempting option, it appears Rutschman will have to wait until the next calendar year to make his arrival. Perhaps a September call-up is in the works, but whatever the Orioles pick, they’ll want to make sure it’s a decision made with a lot of thought.