Jim Henneman: Adley Rutschman, Matt Wieters Similar In Many Ways … Including The Hype

The hype, expectation and reaction were no different, and even though the timing was far from ideal, it was remarkably similar to a long ago experience.

It’s hard to believe that Adley Rutschman’s much anticipated debut with the Orioles was just eight days short of the 13th anniversary of Matt Wieters’ first game. Where have you gone Adam Jones … and Chris Tillman?

You might recall that the 2009 season was central to the Orioles’ most recent attempt at a rebuild, makeover, remake, or whatever you want to call it. Adam Jones was still considered the second piece (behind Tillman) of the Erik Bedard trade, one of the two “teardown deals” engineered by Andy MacPhail (Miguel Tejada for Luke Scott and friends was the other).

Nick Markakis was the face of the franchise then, Brian Roberts was a declining veteran presence, the pitching staff was a collective mess and Wieters was the prized prospect in waiting.

It all seems, and sounds, so familiar. The Orioles were in the fourth year of a six-season stretch of 92 or more losses. From a won-loss standpoint they weren’t as bad as the current version, but if everything goes according to current GM Mike Elias’ plans, that is where the comparisons will stop.

Not, however, that there aren’t a few to make. Wieters was the fifth overall pick in the 2007 draft and made his MLB debut during his second full minor league season two years later, on May 29. Rutschman commanded a little more attention as the first overall pick in 2019, but the pandemic delayed his arrival a year, though still only in his second full minor league season.

The biggest and most noticeable difference between the two shows up at the bottom of the respective box scores — where the attendance can be found. With the benefit of a modest buildup, Wieters’ first game produced the largest walkup sale in club history that produced a Friday night crowd of 42,706 (an increase of 30,767 over the previous night) — and a total of 99,509 for three weekend games.

By contrast, Rutschman’s arrival was announced on the morning of his debut, which also happened to be on the biggest sports day of the year in Maryland, with the running of the Preakness dominating media and spectator attention. The result was a sparse, but raucous, crowd of 17,573, less than a 2,500 bump from the night before, but one that exuded undeniable energy.

Nobody can question the timing of Rutschman’s promotion from a baseball standpoint, but it was definitely a flop at the turnstiles. Since it’s been more than a decade, a generation if you will, many have forgotten, or don’t remember, that the hype prior to Wieters’ arrival was every bit as much, or more, as that experienced by the new face of the franchise, as the box office numbers will attest.

But there is reason, and some evidence, to believe this year’s version of the Orioles will be better than the one 13 years ago, when there were still two more years of 90-plus losses to endure. There weren’t any other blue-chippers in the system ready to offer immediate help when Wieters arrived, though there were a couple more high-profile draft choices, Dylan Bundy and Manny Machado, on the way — and that’s the biggest difference between then and now.

While Rutschman is undeniably the future face of the organization, there were two other pieces in place, pitchers D.L. Hall and Grayson Rodriguez, before he arrived. In addition, there are a few others making noise in the minor leagues — and another 1:1 draft choice coming in two months.

The Orioles didn’t become relevant until Wieters’ fourth season with the club, 2012. The American League East wasn’t as potent then as it is today, with Tampa Bay the reigning champion, but if it takes this year’s club four years to become a factor it would be closer to a disaster than a disappointment.

The imminent promotion of Rodriguez, regarded as the best pitching prospect in the minor leagues will create as much, or more, enthusiasm as Rutschman’s arrival — especially at the gate. It will provide another jump start for the “blue skies ahead” prediction, following the first one by only a few weeks, if not days.

It took another three years, when Bundy and Machado showed up, for Wieters to get significant support from the minor league system. At least in that regard, this rebuild is calendar years ahead.

The similarity between the two is off the charts. Both Wieters and Rutschman are switch-hitting catchers with good defensive skills and promising offensive potential.

Wieters has a solid 12-year career that included four All-Star appearances and two Gold Gloves in the rearview mirror as Rutschman embarks on his journey. The fact that Wieters primarily made his mark here on defense and is considered, perhaps unfairly, an overall disappointment is where the pressure of expectations comes into play.

At least in the beginning, because it’s hard to measure the ability of somebody catching 150 pitches a game, Rutschman will be compared to Wieters as a hitter first and foremost. That’s where the hype will come into play, but it won’t be any greater for Rutschman than it was for his predecessor.

Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com

Photo Credits: Mitch Stringer/PressBox and Eric Nalpas/Baltimore Orioles