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Adley Rutschman is already one of baseball’s most important players

The rookie has quickly recovered from a rocky start to become a crucial member of an Orioles team that is turning heads all over the sport.

MLB: New York Yankees at Baltimore Orioles Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

There is an understandable amount of hype that comes with being the top overall draft pick. Even in a sport like baseball, where draft position appears less correlated to career success than the other major sports, the status puts pressure on a player. For Adley Rutschman, it also came with comparisons to Hall of Famers and the hopes and dreams of an entire fanbase.

It’s still early—Rutschman only has 55 big league games under his belt—but every indication is that the Oregon State product is bound for the stardom that was promised.

Since debuting on May 21, Rutschman has a .241/.336/.424 batting line, which amounts to 2.0 fWAR. That is the sixth-best among all catchers in that time, behind only some of the best known backstops in the sport, like J.T. Realmuto and Will Smith. Depending on your definition, Rutschman is already amongst the elite at his position, an outcome that was expected, but perhaps not this quickly. He climbs even higher on the leaderboards if you remove the month of May, when he had a .529 OPS.

The bat his good, particularly for a catcher. Rutschman has been the third-most productive hitter on the Orioles since his debut. His 116 OPS+ ranks behind only Ramon Urías (163) and Anthony Santander (127) in that time, and he is only heating up. His OPS has jumped from .529 in May, to .775 in June, and .859 in July. The biggest change this past month was improved plate discipline; he walked (15 times) almost as often as he struck out (17 times).

But what has made him special is the combination of that offensive output with defensive ability that seems destined for multiple Gold Gloves. According to Baseball Savant, Rutschman’s pop time to second base (1.91) is the fourth fastest in MLB, as is his arm strength, which averages 87.1 mph. Savant also considers him a top-tier pitch framer, sitting in the 89th percentile of catchers. That alone has saved the Orioles’ pitchers a few runs already.

On top of that, he gets down the line pretty well. His 27.3 ft/second sprint speed is right around league average. But again, in the context of being a catcher, that is pretty darn good. It places him 10th in the league among backstops.

It’s easy to understand why he was regarded as the game’s top prospect for so long. As a 24-year-old, Rutschman is already among the best in the sport on the defensive side of things, and his bat is trending in that direction as well.

As if it wasn’t already clear, Rutschman is going to be at the heart of the expected wave of competitive Orioles teams. The fact that the big league squad has seemed to do a 180 since his debut is not an accident. The switch hitter has boosted every area of the roster.

This is particularly evident in how the rookie interacts with his pitching staff. He shows passion behind the plate on well executed pitches. He brings positive energy to the pitcher at the conclusion of every inning, often meeting them at the foul line for a quick high five and back pat. And he gets particularly excited at the end of a win, usually hyping up closer Jorge López, who reciprocates with a shout and a smile. That alone has felt like a positive culture shock for this team.

It is impossible to keep a catcher in the lineup every single day, but the Orioles are certainly trying, often DHing him or giving him pinch hit opportunities on days he does not start. The DH days might be even more frequent in 2023 as the team is likely to be without Trey Mancini and possibly Anthony Santander by that point. It’s a move that could mean the Orioles are not quite as good defensively every single day, but should allow them to keep Rutschman healthy, and earn him more plate appearances overall.

In the immediate term, all of this may not mean much. The 2022 Orioles are a fun team, but external reinforcements seem unlikely, which could leave them as also-rans. Rutschman should get consideration for Rookie of the Year, but the jump start that guys like Julio Rodríguez and Bobby Witt Jr. got on him may prove too much to overcome.

What should happen sometime this offseason, however, is that the Orioles need to explore options to keep Rutschman in Baltimore for a long time to come. It may seem premature, but it feels like a surefire way to expand the team’s potential winning window to be as long as they have one of the top catchers in the sport.

There is risk on both sides to a set-up like that, of course. Rutschman would be giving up some of his free agency, possibly under-valuing those years, in exchange for certainty now. The Orioles would roll the dice on the health of a player that spends most of his time at the sport’s most demanding position.

But if there was ever there was a player worth building around, Rutschman certainly seems to be the one. Teams need to roll out the red carpet for generational talents. The Orioles failed to do this with Manny Machado, who has continued to be a perennial all-star and MVP candidate after leaving Baltimore. They cannot allow the same thing to happen again.