Advertisement
Baltimore Orioles

As the Orioles slow-play Adley Rutschman, his 2019 draft peers are already fighting for big league jobs | ANALYSIS

Every few days, the Orioles bring top prospect Adley Rutschman over from their minor league site at Twin Lakes Park to their major league facility across town in Sarasota, Florida, and give him a taste of what it’s like.

On the other side of the baseball world in Arizona, the two players selected after him in the 2019 draft — Kansas City Royals shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. and Chicago White Sox slugger Andrew Vaughn — are playing far more often and forcing conversations to make their teams.

Advertisement

That’s no cause for any kind of second-guessing a selection that landed the Orioles one of the consensus top prospects in baseball, a catcher that has generated lofty expectations for when he arrives in the majors by virtue of his talent and track record in college.

It is, however, cause to consider what this current version of the Orioles value and how far down the road it will be before their mission of growing talented players in the minors leads to young stars producing at the major league level for a competitive team.

Advertisement

Simply put, this spring has been a reminder that they’re not even close to that.

Rutschman having more than 12 at-bats over six spring training games wouldn’t accelerate that timeline, though how the Royals are using Witt and talking about the chance that he can play himself onto the team — however unlikely — speaks a bit to what they’re trying to do.

Royals general manager Dayton Moore said in a radio interview this week that the team didn’t want to create an aura around Witt, but let him be himself and make an impression on and off the field. He’s done so to the point that Moore said he’s “open-minded” about Witt making the team out of spring training, though it’s a tough ask for a player drafted out of high school in 2019 who had such a limited 2020 in the way so many minor leaguers did.

But Witt has three home runs in 35 plate appearances and is drawing rave reviews from his teammates. Elsewhere in Arizona, Vaughn has two extra-base hits and is showing strong plate discipline as he looks to be Chicago’s designated hitter to begin the season.

Like Rutschman, they were only able to play affiliated ball after they were drafted in 2019, though the Orioles’ top pick’s debut was delayed because of mononucleosis. Vaughn had 90 more plate appearances than Rutschman’s 155, and Witt had 30 more. Each missed his first full season in 2020 because of the pandemic, but trained at their team’s alternate site.

The Orioles were thrilled with how Rutschman progressed at theirs. Especially late at the Bowie camp, he had stretches where he was the toughest out there, and he used the time to refine what’s already a lethal swing.

But as much improvement he might have made in making the most of that situation, the Orioles as a team aren’t ready to improve just yet. Their baseball operations mission remains to increase the overall prospect pool and try to develop the players in their system as well as they can. They seem to be doing everything possible to try and perfect the process of getting better, which is a fine strategy.

Waiting for that process to be at its peak limits them from showing any results in many cases, and Rutschman’s slow progression seems to be part of that. It might not be until this time next year when there’s a real chance he could make his big league debut.

Advertisement

For Rutschman and other young Orioles prospects, this approach is simply limiting. Both Witt and Vaughn entered Thursday with more spring training plate appearances than any Orioles position player — projected starters included.

There were plenty of at-bats for prospects such as Yusniel Diaz, Ryan McKenna, Jahmai Jones, Tyler Nevin and Rylan Bannon. Considering how far down the depth chart they are, those can be viewed as perfunctory, and only Jones remains in camp.

The youngest regular the Orioles will feature this year is 24-year-old Rookie of the Year candidate Ryan Mountcastle. Their roster might be the league’s youngest because of the chunk of players in their mid-20s, but that’s not the kind of game-changing, dynamic collection of youth other teams boast.

That’s by design, though. The Orioles’ rebuild has been a deliberate one, and whatever plan they have in mind for when this team can be good again won’t benefit from Rutschman being in the big leagues a year or two before they make that transition.

It’s not the same for Rutschman’s peers at the top of the 2019 draft.

Baltimore Orioles Insider

Baltimore Orioles Insider

Weekly

Want to be an Orioles Insider? The Sun has you covered. Don't miss any Orioles news, notes and info all baseball season and beyond.

The White Sox went through a rebuild and were at the tail end of earning their high draft picks when they took Vaughn. Now he would join a roster of the fruits of that teardown that’s been supplemented by some big additions this offseason.

Advertisement

Kansas City has recently picked at the top of the draft the way the Orioles have, but between their trades and free-agent moves have shown that prioritizing the draft and player development doesn’t exclude a team from trying to improve its major league roster.

All those circumstances influence how the financial aspects of such decisions to push young stars to the big leagues are viewed by teams. The more competitive you hope to be, the quicker top prospects can help toward the end goal.

The Houston Astros, with Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias in their front office, drafted third baseman Alex Bregman second overall in 2015 and brought him to the big leagues 13 months later.

Such aggression would never make sense when considering what the Orioles would be giving up in terms of club control and salary considerations for the prime of Rutschman’s career, especially considering their roster isn’t set up to win in 2021.

That’s why Rutschman, despite playing more this spring than last, has been scarce. Perhaps he will find his way into the lineup in the two games that are broadcast locally next week to give a glimpse of what he’s capable of before he goes back to minor league camp to prepare for the season.

And then, maybe then, he can get some regular at-bats somewhere in the minors and start producing at a level where he can force the Orioles’ hand and make them consider bringing him to the big leagues.


Advertisement