When it comes to Adley Rutschman, many Orioles fans have the same thought about his eventual major-league debut in 2022: finally. Mostly, it’s because fans can’t wait to see what the consensus top prospect in baseball can do at the highest level. But it’s also because of what his arrival signals about the Orioles’ gradual rebuilding process.
The Orioles still won’t be close to a winning ballclub when Rutschman takes the field. But as the first and most talented of the prospects drafted by general manager Mike Elias, Rutschman brings a great deal of hype — along with the hope that this rebuild won’t last forever.
That’s a lot of pressure for any player, but Rutschman’s resume stacks up against any prospect. To start with, he’s an outstanding defender at an important position. Scouts rave about the 23-year-old catcher’s defense, and he also won a Minor League Gold Glove this past season (if you care about such things). It’s not a stretch to expect him to be one of the game’s best defensive catchers the minute he steps on the field.
Any top position player prospect is more than a glove, and that’s clearly true of Rutschman. He’s an accomplished switch-hitter with on-base skills and power. Because of the lost minor-league season in 2020, his first full season didn’t come until 2021. But he made the most of his time at the Orioles’ alternate training site in 2020, soaking up information and making adjustments, and he was widely discussed as the best player in camp.
Then, during his time at Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk in 2021, he looked every bit the part of a phenom. In 543 combined plate appearances, Rutschman slashed .285/.397/.502, collected 23 home runs and 25 doubles, and struck out only 11 more times (90) than he walked (79). His wRC+ between the two stops was nearly identical: 145 in Double-A, 142 in Triple-A.
There’s no way to rank intangibles like work ethic and leadership, but it’s impossible to discuss Rutschman’s impact without mentioning those qualities. Then-Bowie and now-Norfolk manager Buck Britton told reporters this past season that Rutschman is a “natural-born leader,” and teammates and coaches compliment his professionalism and drive to never stop improving.
It’ll soon be time to find out if his skills will translate. The Steamer projection system, available on FanGraphs, forecasts a rosy debut season for Rutschman. Steamer projects Rutschman to post a .260/.339/.448 batting line (113 wRC+) and a 2.7 fWAR. It’s merely one projection, but to put that in perspective, only Cedric Mullins (136) and Ramón Urías (115) had a better wRC+ last season. Only Mullins, at 5.3, tallied a better fWAR total.
If Rutschman has close to that amount of success in 2022, he’ll own the best rookie catcher season in O’s history (by fWAR, at least). Since the team arrived in Baltimore in 1954, Caleb Joseph’s 1.8 fWAR season in 2014 is the leader, just ahead of Dan Graham in 1980 (1.7), Chris Hoiles in 1991 (1.7) and Johnny Oates in 1972 (1.6). At 117, Graham owns the best wRC+ mark.
In case enough isn’t being piled on Rutschman’s plate, it’s interesting to marvel at the best rookie catcher seasons in that same time span. The top spots are occupied by true catching legends: Mike Piazza in 1993 (7.4 fWAR), Carlton Fisk in 1972 (6.6), Thurman Munson in 1970 (5.0) and Johnny Bench in 1968 (4.5). Wilson Ramos in 2011, at 4.5, rounds out the top five.
Perhaps something a bit better than Matt Wieters’ rookie season — .288/.340/.412, 95 wRC+, 1.1 fWAR in 385 plate appearances — would be a decent place to start. Until he proves himself, Rutschman will keep being compared to Wieters, another switch-hitting catcher drafted by the Orioles in the first round.
By fWAR, Wieters’ three best seasons came in Years 2, 3 and 4. He started to fade after that, needed Tommy John surgery in 2014 and was never quite the same. Still, for as bad of a rap as Wieters gets, Rutschman potentially being a better version of Wieters at the plate, with superior defense and more longevity, sounds pretty nice.
Rutschman doesn’t have to be a legend, or an All-Star, or one of the Orioles’ best players right away. It would help, of course, but the success of the rebuild is not all on his shoulders. What the O’s want from Rutschman is what they’re preaching to the rest of their prospects: things like making good swing decisions, improving pitch recognition and hitting the ball hard. He just has the ability to do it better and more consistently.
At the same time, it’s hard not to look at what Wander Franco (the consensus No. 1 prospect before Rutschman) accomplished in his debut, wowing the Rays’ front office so much that they inked him to a record-breaking 11-year, $182 million extension (with a club option), and want to see something similar from the O’s young catcher.
Surely, the Orioles need Rutschman to be very good. But after Rutschman debuts, Elias and the O’s can’t trot out the same line about no prospects debuting since Elias took over. They can’t expect the farm system alone to drag the Orioles from the depths of derision. They’re too smart to think that, which means the clock will start ticking on the O’s adding useful pieces from outside the organization to complement the upcoming prospect arrivals.
For as much fun as Rutschman’s debut should be, it’ll be even more fun when the Orioles choose to add reinforcements.
Weighted runs created plus (wRC+) is an offensive metric in which 100 is the league average and every point above 100 is a percentage point above league average.
Photo Credit: Steven Goldburg