FanGraphs lead prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen says Orioles catching prospect Adley Rutschman will be the top prospect in baseball once Tampa Bay Rays infielder Wander Franco accrues enough at-bats at the big-league level to graduate from prospect lists … but it’s still possible Baltimore takes a catcher in the 2021 MLB Draft this month.
Franco, 20, was hitting .315/.367/.586 with Triple-A Durham this year before his recent call-up to the big leagues. He’s played mostly shortstop in his short time with the Rays. Once Franco exceeds 130 at-bats — he’s at 31 at-bats entering play July 1 — he will have exhausted his prospect eligibility. When that happens, Rutschman will be the top prospect in the game “with a bullet,” according to Longenhagen. “It’s not close.”
Rutschman, 23, is currently hitting .291/.427/.520 with 11 home runs at Double-A Bowie. The 2021 season marks Rutschman’s first full season as a professional since being taken with the No. 1 overall pick out of Oregon State in the 2019 MLB Draft. He’s unlikely to make it to the big leagues this year, but he should be up at some point in 2022.
“He’s a switch-hitting catcher with power and plus athleticism. He’s an elite defender. He has all the intangibles. He’s Brian Dawkins in catcher’s gear. He’s No. 1. He’s awesome,” Longenhagen said on Glenn Clark Radio June 29. “Everyone cross your fingers that every foul ball that would otherwise clip this guy’s forearms or shoulders or inner thighs just gets redirected by some guardian angel that Rob Manfred has put in place somehow.”
It is, of course, not the first time the Orioles have had a switch-hitting catcher come through their farm system with a lot of hype. In 2008, his first year out of Georgia Tech, Wieters hit .355/.454/.600 with 27 home runs between High-A Frederick and Double-A Bowie. He then hit .305/.387/.504 in limited time at Triple-A Norfolk in 2009 before getting called up to the big leagues.
Wieters helped form the backbone of an Orioles team that won the most games in the American League from 2012-2016, but his bat never reached the heights expected of it when he was a prospect. He hit .256/.318/.421 with 117 home runs in parts of eight years with the Orioles.
“I know Matt Wieters was not what people promised. [Rutschman] is going to be that,” Longenhagen said. “This guy’s going to be a cornerstone of your franchise. This is a future Hall of Fame talent.”
With that all said, the Orioles are sifting through every possible avenue to take in the 2021 draft, and there are two catchers who could intrigue the club with the No. 5 overall pick: Louisville’s Henry Davis and Atlanta-area high schooler Harry Ford. Longenhagen and FanGraphs national writer Kevin Goldstein had the Orioles taking Davis in their latest mock draft and Ford going No. 13 to the Philadelphia Phillies.
Davis hit .370/.482/.663 with 15 home runs at Louisville this spring. Under GM Mike Elias, the Orioles have taken college hitters (Rutschman and Arkansas outfielder Heston Kjerstad) with their first-round picks the past two years. Davis would fit that mold. The question is if he’ll be able to stick at catcher in pro ball, but the bat plays regardless.
“Henry Davis hit a home run this year that I don’t know if it was ever more than like 13 feet off the ground. He hit an absolute laser rope,” Longenhagen said. “This guy’s got crazy power. He has got virtually no swing-and-miss issues. He’s performed in a huge college conference for several years. He looks the part in a uniform and athletically.”
“If Henry Davis falls to them,” Longenhagen added, “he’s the one where everyone in the draft room should look at each other and going, ‘What are we doing here? This guy’s going to mash. Let’s take this dude.'”
It’s also unclear what position Ford will play in pro ball. One of Ford’s best attributes is his athleticism, so much so that Longenhagen believes he will be able to play center field. Moving Ford out from behind home plate will allow his bat to shine and speed up his progression through the minors since he won’t have to spend so much time learning how to catch at a high level.
One of the reasons for taking Ford, who has been mocked in the middle of the first round all draft season, would likely be to pay him an under-slot bonus and spread money around to later picks. (Longenhagen also mentioned Sam Houston State outfielder Colton Cowser as a potential under-slot option.) Baltimore’s bonus pool is about $11.8 million and the slot value of the No. 5 pick is about $6.2 million.
The Orioles pick again at Nos. 41 and 65 before picking fifth in every round thereafter. Longenhagen mentioned Connecticut prep left-hander Frank Mozzicato and New Jersey prep lefty Anthony Solometo as potential over-slot options if Baltimore were to go under-slot at No. 5.
“Those are the two names, and it’s because they are athletic kids with a feel to pitch,” Longenhagen said. “They don’t throw super hard right now. They just have feel, athleticism, can spin a breaking ball. The easiest thing to develop right now in our game is velocity. I want all the other stuff and the underlying athletic and body projection traits that indicate I can develop the velo. … They’ve got that.”
For more from Longenhagen, listen to the full interview here:
Photo Credit: William Vaughan/Bowie Baysox