When it doubt, take the shortstop.
That was Earl Weaver’s philosophy 50 years ago and Buck Showalter’s 40 years later. Neither former Orioles manager had input on decisions made regarding baseball’s amateur draft, but they both subscribed to the “best athlete” theory when it came to evaluating prospects.
Orioles general manager Mike Elias has used the formula in the past and, at the very least, it figures to come into play again when the man in charge of the Orioles’ rebuild selects the first player in the 2019 draft.
By just about every account, Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman is closer to being major-league ready than just about any player available in the 2019 version of baseball’s annual amateur draft.
That, however, does not figure be a factor when the Orioles make the first selection in the draft, which this year runs June 3-5. In fact, it may even be one of two reasons why Rutschman instead becomes available to the Kansas City Royals as the No. 2 pick.
Chances are Rutschman could be All-Star ready, halfway to free agency and close to his prime before the Orioles are ready to be contenders. Crazy as it might seem, that alone probably dulls his attractiveness to a team in the early stages of a rebuild. The other, and perhaps even more significant, factor working against Rutschman as the Orioles’ projected No. 1 pick is the position he plays.
Joe Mauer is the poster boy for catchers who have gone 1-1 since the draft started in 1965. B.J. Surhoff, who topped 1985’s historic draft, was the other catcher who led his draft, while Buster Posey is the signature receiver among active players. They have one thing in common: at some point in their careers, each has had to find another position.
Mauer caught in just 921 of the 1,526 games he played during his career; Posey has played first base in 227 of his first 1151 games and figures to see more action there going forward; and Surhoff was able to extend his career to 2,171 games by playing two-thirds of them as an infielder or outfielder.
Nobody in this Orioles’ regime, the one that preceded it or any other for that matter, would demean the impact a solid catcher has on a team. But neither would they overlook the fact that you are comparing a position player who will play 120 games a year to others who could play upwards of 150. It is not an insignificant fact.
Rutschman is a two-time All-American catcher for defending NCAA champion Oregon State. He’s a switch hitter with power who, from every report, checks all the boxes — both on and off the field, which will not go unnoticed by Elias, the new face of the Orioles’ front office, who is big on both facets of a player’s personality.
Former Baltimore Sun baseball writer Dan Connolly (whose work I greatly admire) went to Corvallis, Ore., and wrote a riveting feature for The Athletic that touched all the bases on Rutschman: his leadership, personality, involvement in the community, and, oh yes by the way the most important thing — his ability.
But even with all the positives, and there are many, Rutschman is not a perfect fit for this rebuild. The Orioles need a dynamic, middle-of-the-field player who can become the face of the franchise, a generational player, somebody like Carlos Correa, the Astros’ wunderkind shortstop, who just happens to be the first player drafted by the Astros under general manager Jeff Luhnow. Elias was a special assistant to Luhnow at the time Correa was drafted (2012). Elias was named the team’s scouting director shortly thereafter.
It might not be prudent to tie Elias to one highly successful pick, but the Astros also had the top overall pick each of the next two years (both pitchers) and they didn’t go too well. However, the compensation for failing to sign lefty Brady Aiken, the top pick in 2014, turned out to be infielder Alex Bregman. Bregman quickly joined Correa, second baseman Jose Altuve and center fielder George Springer — all middle-of-the-field players — to form the core of a team generally regarded as the best in baseball.
Correa, a high school prospect from Puerto Rico, was ranked somewhere in the middle on most top 10 lists in 2012, but he was attractive to the Astros as an under-slot signee who allowed them flexibility they later used to sign pitcher Lance McCullers. It should be noted that Bregman, a fixture at third base, was a shortstop when he became the second overall pick out of LSU in 2015.
By all scouting reports, the closest to Correa (and Bregman, for that matter) in this year’s draft is Texas high school shortstop Bobby Witt, Jr. Witt and Rutschman are expected to go 1-2, with the Kansas City Royals taking the player the Orioles leave behind. C.J. Abrams, another high school shortstop, is also ranked in the top five. It is no coincidence two of the top five, three of the top 10 and ten of the top 50 prospects in this year’s draft are shortstops.
On the 20-80 scouting system used to rate prospects, Rutschman and Witt come out almost identical, with the shortstop getting a slight advantage based on his exceptional speed. Rutschman gets top ranking because his overall ability is closer to the major-league level
That figures to be more of a factor for the Royals, who are well into their second rebuild after consecutive World Series appearances in 2014-15, than it would be for the Orioles. As prime candidates for a top pick the next couple of years, the Orioles’ choice is between a more advanced player with a 120-130 game per season ceiling or the long range potential of a younger player with 150-160 game capability.
If we were using NFL rules here, there’s no question in my mind that Elias would be in a “trade down” mode, going for quantity and quality, but that’s not an option. This looks like a clear-cut case of choosing between two unique talents, but I don’t think this is a “flip the coin” kind of decision.
Rutschman undoubtedly has all the appearance of being the safest pick, if there is such a thing. But I don’t think Elias and the Orioles have a “Safety First” mindset about this rebuild. I think this is a decision that will be made for the long haul, and my gut tells me Earl and Buck would approve.
When in doubt, take the shortstop.
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Colleyville Heritage High School