Orioles top prospect and 2019 No.1 overall draft pick Adley Rutschman couldn’t have expected anything that came in his first full professional season.
With a three-month shutdown because of coronavirus pandemic and no minor league season, the major league secondary camp in Bowie and this month’s fall instructional camp in Sarasota, Florida, are his only organized baseball activities since his impressive major league spring training.
Plenty of what’s resulted, though, has been beneficial. Chief among those benefits was the fact that Rutschman, for all his pedigree, got challenged far above the level he’d have been expected to see in the minors. He adjusted and assessed his game accordingly, and has been happy with the results.
“There was a lot of positive that came out of the Bowie camp, but I think definitely one is understanding that you can compete at that level, and the confidence in knowing so,” Rutschman said. “I wouldn’t have seen these guys for the most part in High-A.”
As the unquestioned top player in the Orioles' farm system, his approach both at the Bowie camp as a relative youngster and now at the fall camp as a leader both on and off the field is one that every minor leaguer will have to take to make this year worthwhile.
“This is not exactly what you expect for your first season, but we’re making the most out of it,” Rutschman said. “That’s really all that matters.”
After climbing all the way to Low-A Delmarva for the playoffs at the end of the 2019 season, Rutschman was invited to major league spring training to work with major league catching instructor Tim Cossins and a diverse group of backstops before going over to minor league camp to rejoin his peers.
There wasn’t much time at Twin Lakes Park before spring training was shut down, and Rutschman was summoned when the secondary camp at Bowie began this summer to jump-start his development there. The switch-hitter has already put plenty of work into making his swing one of the most dangerous of any prospect in the game, but he and the hitting coaches at Bowie spent time trying to further refine it. The competition level in a camp full of pitchers with major league experience and top prospects with premium stuff helped.
“To me, I think just being able to be adjustable to different pitches, especially at that high of a level,” Rutschman said of the adjustments. “You’re facing great pitchers all the time who can throw almost any pitch in any count, so because of that, that was just the biggest thing, being able to find that adjustability in what stance, what load, what swing played the best. That was kind of it for me.”
There was a period of breaking down his swing and figuring out what would work in an environment in which statistical results didn’t matter, and after about a month, Rutschman exploded offensively.
“Once it clicked, it really clicked for me,” he said. “I think there was a lot of progress. I was very happy.”
Rutschman also got regular experience catching those high-level pitchers and learning how they might expect to pitch to a scouting report or adjust based on their stuff in a way that wouldn’t happen in the low minors.
Through it all, Rutschman — a player who is as relentless a competitor as he is a tinkerer — tried to make sure he was getting everything he could from the camp. He did so, he said, by keeping in mind “the big picture” in terms of the season and his development.
“We’re going to get through this, and when that happens, you want to feel like you’ve gotten better,” Rutschman said. “You always want to feel like you’re moving forward. Just staying optimistic and understanding that there’s a process, there’s a purpose to what you’re doing, creates that mindset where you’re always getting better.”
Last month, executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said Rutschman has “special abilities all the way around,” and had “a tremendous summer camp.”
“For him in particular, he faced nothing but Double-A, Triple-A, and major league arms," Elias said. "To do that and adapt to it is something that’s hard to replicate and he did that. That was good to see.”
Rutschman enjoyed seeing fellow top prospects Ryan Mountcastle, Dean Kremer and Keegan Akin make their major league debuts from the Bowie site, but that wasn’t in the cards for him at such an early juncture in his career. He was one of just two 2019 draftees at the site, alongside second-round pick Gunnar Henderson, while the rest of the draft class and the six-man group of 2020 Orioles draftees were made to wait until the instructional camp for that experience.
Joining up with that group, including so many that he got to know after signing last summer, has been a joy for Rutschman.
“The most important thing that makes up a team is the chemistry and the group of people you have surrounding you that want to make each other better,” he said. “That’s the thing with the instructional camp right now that we see — guys who want to make each other better, guys who are trying to push each other and understand the only way we’re going to move this thing forward is to push each other and to develop that chemistry. It’s really exciting.”
That group, including Rutschman, will make the Orioles' minor leagues look quite different from years past if players go to affiliates in what’s expected to be a re-imagined minor league landscape.
Where Rutschman begins — or how long he’s there before his undeniable talent brings him to Camden Yards — is of little concern to him as he’s trying to enjoy this month in Sarasota with his peers.
“No matter what level I’m at, I’m going to compete,” he said. “That’s never changed. I think for me, it’s always about getting better. If you throw me at any level, I’m going to compete to the best of my abilities. But whatever it is, my timeline is up to the coaching staff and up to everyone in charge.
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"My job is to just play as well as I can, and try and do my best to be up there as quickly as possible. But I think I’ve definitely made progress over this last couple months, and I’m very, very happy about that.”