The Orioles landed five prospects in Baseball America‘s preseason top-100 list: catcher Adley Rutschman (No. 1), right-hander Grayson Rodriguez (No. 6), left-hander DL Hall (No. 52), infielder Gunnar Henderson (No. 57) and outfielder Colton Cowser (No. 98).
Rutschman is the second Oriole to ever be named BA’s No. 1 prospect (Matt Wieters held the title entering the 2009 season). BA editor in chief JJ Cooper said on Glenn Clark Radio Jan. 20 that there were two other candidates in contention for the No. 1 spot along with Rutschman: Seattle Mariners outfielder Julio Rodriguez and Kansas City Royals shortstop Bobby Witt Jr., drafted one spot behind Rutschman in 2019.
Cooper compared the Rutschman-Rodriguez-Witt trio to when BA’s top three prospects were Ronald Acuna Jr., Shohei Ohtani and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. in 2018. Rutschman, Rodriguez and Witt all have cases to be the top prospect, Cooper said, but the BA staff settled on Rutschman after reaching out to scouts, coaches, analysts and front office officials this offseason.
So why Rutschman?
“It wasn’t unanimous on any of these guys, but we did get more Adley Rutschman No. 1 feedback than anyone else,” Cooper said. “The overarching reason for that … was, ‘Do you know how hard it is to find a catcher with this kind of approach, the chance to hit like he’s going to hit, and on top of that above-average or plus defense?’ That’s just harder to find than a middle-of-the-order bat in right field or even a middle-of-the-order bat [at] shortstop.”
Rutschman, who turns 24 in February, played his first full professional season in 2021, hitting .285/.397/.502 with 23 home runs across 543 plate appearances at Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk. He’s a switch-hitter with a track record of hitting from both sides of the plate, so opposing managers presumably won’t be able to easily plan for him in the big leagues.
Oh, and Rutschman is highly regarded behind the plate, too. The BA staff was tasked with comparing what Rutschman offers to shortstop Witt (.290/.361/.575 at Double-A and Triple-A in 2021) and corner outfielder Rodriguez (.347/.441/.560 at High-A and Double-A in 2021).
“It comes to very interesting discussions of positional value versus injury risk versus who’s going to be the best hitter, who’s going to be the best defender, how much defensive value is there for a shortstop versus a catcher. It was fascinating,” Cooper said. “As someone who still geeks out about this after doing it for 20 years, it was an extremely enjoyable argument and discussion.”
Catching does carry more injury risk than usual, Cooper explained. There’s a greater chance of injuries impacting the trajectory of a catcher’s career — as was the case with Wieters (Tommy John surgery) and Joe Mauer (concussions) — than the career of an outfielder or shortstop. The daily grind of catching can’t be ignored, either.
“The chances of a catcher breaking a finger, still staying in the lineup but it affecting his batting average and his slugging percentage and his on-base percentage is just higher than it is for a right fielder or a shortstop,” Cooper said.
The BA staff also had to consider what kind of hitter each of the three is likely to be. Cooper believes Rodriguez and Witt will have a little more juice in their bats in terms of power, but he loves Rutschman’s approach and on-base skills. Rutschman walked 79 times and only struck out 90 times last year.
“There is power there, but if you told me his best offensive attribute is a high on-base percentage, and that he’s a switch-hitter, which is going to help him hit for a higher average as well, I think that’s kind of more what he is,” Cooper said. “I think that Julio Rodriguez and Bobby Witt Jr., the guys right behind him on the list, are guys that have a very legitimate shot to have a 40 home run type season. I think that’s less likely with Rutschman.”
To hear more from Cooper, including his thoughts on the rest of the Orioles in the top-100 list, listen to the full interview here:
Photo Credit: Steven Goldburg