Orioles pitchers and catchers officially report to spring training tomorrow. That’s a collection of words that typically elicits great joy from baseball fans, although the reaction might be slightly muted in Baltimore since not only is the franchise still in the most difficult part of a rebuilding process, we still don’t know if any Orioles fans at all will be able to partake in an “Opening Day” celebration in Baltimore once spring training concludes.
Later this week, our new print issue of PressBox will hit newsstands featuring a lengthy Q&A with Orioles manager Brandon Hyde. But before that happens, I figured I might take a swing (get it? Like baseball?) at the top five biggest questions facing the Orioles as spring training gets underway.
So here goes.
1. “When will we see Adley Rutschman in Baltimore?”
2. “But specifically, can you name the date and make sure fans are back in time by then, please?”
3. Yeah, you know what, I think that’s it.
I understand that the most passionate Orioles fans will be interested in seeing how Ryan Mountcastle builds off a solid start and whether Anthony Santander takes another step toward being a potentially special everyday MLB player. I get that even the casual fan is excited about Trey Mancini’s return to the field after his cancer battle. And I understand there is an unlikely world where Felix Hernandez and/or Matt Harvey could somehow resemble their former selves for at least brief moments, and the entire baseball world might find that interesting.
But let’s not kid ourselves. From a baseball standpoint, Adley Rutschman is the center of the Orioles’ universe. He’s what matters. He’s what we care about. And for any of this to ever work out, we need to know that the centerpiece of the plan is as legitimate as we’ve been lead to believe.
Every analyst worth his or her salt has Rutschman as the second-best prospect in all of baseball behind only the Rays’ Wander Franco coming into the season. He’s CONSIDERED to be as close to a sure thing as a Valentine’s Day with the kids at their grandparents after a steak and scallop dinner and a bottle and a half of wine.
Yet the single most important player in the organization has still never played at a level higher than the Sally League. So not only do we need him to turn heads in major-league spring training, we also need to see him rip the cover off the ball at whatever they’re calling the Double A level now. We need to feel comfort that this rebuild is working, and Rutschman’s development is the only real way we can feel that right now.
It’s not that Rutschman’s success alone can carry an organizational rebuild to fruition. It’s that we’re hard pressed to fathom how an organizational rebuild can come to fruition without Rutschman’s success. It seems like all of the eggs are in that basket. Think back to Election Night for a second. (I know you probably don’t want to, but bear with me.) Remember how important certain states were perceived to be? “If __ doesn’t win Pennsylvania, he could still win — but he’ll need Georgia, Arizona, a congressional district in Nebraska, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the provisional ballots filled out by clergymen in Equatorial Guinea.”
That’s kinda where we are with Rutschman. If the former No. 1 overall pick doesn’t turn out to be the sport’s next Buster Posey, the Orioles will instead need Mountcastle and Santander and Heston Kjerstad and Gunnar Henderson and Jordan Westburg and DL Hall and Grayson Rodriguez and this could still end up in the Supreme Court anyway.
If Rutschman proves to be as good as we believe he’ll be, the Orioles will still need the majority of those players to pan out as well in order for this rebuild to deliver them into AL East contention one day. It just feels impossible without Rutschman becoming truly special. Not “solid MLB player who doesn’t deserve the negative feelings fans seem to have toward him” like Matt Wieters. I mean “truly special.”
So yeah. That’s what matters as spring training gets underway. That’s what will matter in March and April and May and until we’re celebrating Rutschman as only the third player ever to win Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season. We can spend the next couple weeks talking about whether Cedric Mullins or Austin Hays can solidify themselves as everyday center fielders for the next five years or if Tanner Scott can establish himself as a legitimate “closer” at the big-league level or if Chris Davis can hit above .080 or whatever, but this is what we’ll actually care about and this is what actually matters.
Photo Credit: Ed Sheahin/Gary Sousa/PressBox