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The Orioles have aggressively promoted top prospects all summer. Why is Adley Rutschman still at Double-A?

If Orioles top prospect Adley Rutschman was looking out the bus window at the right time as he and the Bowie Baysox hauled down to Richmond for this week’s series with the Flying Squirrels, he’ll have seen a sign for the highway headed east to Norfolk.

Four of his teammates were promoted to the Orioles’ Triple-A affiliate there just this week, taking that same road to their next minor league challenge. And each week since the beginning of June, a group of successful prospects in the Orioles’ improving farm system earned promotions to continue to develop in a more advanced environment.

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Rutschman, however, has stayed put. And even as he broke out of a several-week skid for his best series of the season last week, with three home runs and three doubles while walking seven times, one of baseball’s best prospects remains in Bowie.

As long as the Orioles feel that he can improve while he’s there, they won’t feel any need to move him.

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“This is his first [full] professional season in baseball,” director of player development Matt Blood said. “We’re still seeing growth occur where he is in his game. I think once we feel like he’s no longer benefiting from being in Bowie, then he’ll move. That’s really what it’s about — we see him still developing his consistency of his game in Bowie in a way that we think is more productive in Bowie at this point. When that stops being the case, then we’ll move him.”

In that sense, Rutschman bouncing back last week is a good sign. He was batting .291 with a .947 OPS and 11 home runs in 48 games entering July, then hit a three-week rough patch that included a trip to the MLB All-Star Futures Game. Rutschman hit .192 with a .590 OPS in 14 games over three series. Bowie manager Buck Britton posited that some of it was down to frustration at being pitched around and trying to do too much with the pitches he could drive.

His breakout last week against Hartford left Rutschman batting .281 with a .927 OPS and 15 home runs while walking 51 times with 49 strikeouts in 68 games.

Blood said stretches like that where things get challenging for Rutschman and he fights through it are “what this whole thing is about for him.”

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“He’s going to go through that, and from my perspective, that’s good we want to see him have to go through the struggles — the goods, the bads, the difficult times — as well as the pressure moments that he’s seen a lot of in Bowie,” Blood said. “They’re playing very competitive games on a nightly basis and that’s been really, really good for him to experience. He’s learning a lot of things that we want him to learn about in the minor leagues, where if we were to rush him, he’d have to learn those things at a different level. We feel like at this moment, it’s best place for him.”

Orioles catching prospect Adley Rutschman has thrown out 35% of would-be base stealers this season.
Orioles catching prospect Adley Rutschman has thrown out 35% of would-be base stealers this season. (Kenneth K. Lam)

Bowie is a good place for any hitter this year. Their batters are far more productive at home versus on the road, though the kinds of home runs Rutschman hits aren’t sneaking down the foul line. Still, his home stats are gaudy. He’s batting .336 with nine home runs at home, and the on-base portion of his 1.145 OPS at Prince George’s Stadium is .500. On the road, he’s batting a more modest .237 with a .740 OPS and six home runs.

Those splits, however, add up to one of the most productive hitters in the minors. His wRC+, which weights his run contributions on a normalized scale with 100 being league-average, is 150 — second-best in Double-A Northeast and seventh-best in all of Double-A.

Ninth on that list is Bobby Witt Jr., who the Kansas City Royals took second overall in the 2019 draft behind Rutschman. Despite being two years younger, Witt was promoted from Double-A to Triple-A earlier this month. The third pick in that draft, Andrew Vaughn, has been up with the Chicago White Sox all season.

And even as the Orioles have been aggressive since the early stages of the minor league season in moving prospects up to levels at the first hint of dominance, Rutschman has stayed at Bowie.

Rutschman’s timeline seems deliberate for a reason. He played at three levels in 2019 after he was drafted and was at the team’s secondary camp at Bowie last summer working on his swing and developing a rapport with some of the pitchers he’ll work with once he reaches the majors. But this time at Double-A was meant to be his full-season introduction to professional baseball. He’s played every game he’s been available for at Bowie, only missing two for the Futures Game.

But with the Orioles showing no signs of turning things around at the major league level and no short-term ambitions to change that, expecting Rutschman to debut this year would have been fanciful. His six seasons of club control don’t begin until he makes his debut, and fair or not, baseball’s salary structure means it’s in the club’s interest to delay Rutschman’s debut until they’re ready to start trying to win again.

Rutschman, however, was drafted with many of the skills already in place to make it in the majors and is likely to be the game’s top prospect this winter. He can’t be held back forever. Even if this is his last week with Bowie, he’d still get two full months at Triple-A Norfolk and would be in a position to finish off his minor league development with a month or two with the Tides in 2022 before making his debut.

None of that has much to do with how Rutschman performs, even if nothing he’s done this year has been cause for concern. He’s thrown out 35% of would-be base stealers and has been a threat to impact the game in every sense.

“He does a lot of things well,” Blood said. “He makes the pitchers better, the pitchers that he [catches], he makes them better just by the way he catches, the way that he calls games, the way that he leads. His presence alone, it helps the whole team in that regard. And then, offensively, he’s just a threat to be one base all the time, and he’s a threat to do some serious damage at any time. Just his presence in the lineup causes stress on the opponents. We’re seeing those things play out on a daily basis.”

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