If Major League Baseball’s reported plan to delay the start of all minor league seasons beneath Triple-A comes to fruition, it’s possible that when Adley Rutschman’s 2021 season officially begins, he will be nearly two full calendar years removed from the Orioles taking him first overall in the 2019 draft.
During that span, he’ll have fewer than 200 professional plate appearance in his career.
Baseball America reported last week that MLB informed teams that spring training for players in Double-A and lower won’t begin until major league and Triple-A players have completed their preseason work at the facilities, part of an effort to avoid gatherings and manage spacing amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. In all likelihood, the seasons for teams beneath Triple-A won’t begin until at least May, assuming pitchers and catchers report as scheduled next month.
It’s not clear exactly what this means for players such as Rutschman, a catcher regarded as the Orioles’ top prospect and a consensus among baseball’s top three. In an appearance last month on MLB Network Radio on SiriusXM, Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said he expects Rutschman to begin 2021 in Double-A, skipping the High-A level that he likely would’ve spent at least part of in 2020 had the pandemic not canceled the minor league season. Instead, he was at Baltimore’s alternate training site in Bowie before heading to Sarasota, Florida, to participate in the club’s fall instructional camp.
“He looked really good at the alternate site, went down to [instruction] to kind of polish off the whole experience,” Elias said. “He performed really well at the alternate site, which he’s a No. 1 pick and he came out of college and you expect that, but he was facing Triple-A, four-A, major league, Double-A arms, our top prospects with huge stuff. We had a pretty good group of arms there, and he did really, really well. That was nice to see. He’s a really mature kid.”
But Elias was hesitant to project a 2021 promotion to Baltimore for Rutschman, and a delay in the minor league season wouldn’t help that, either. Although he was able to spend 2020 facing some of the organization’s advanced pitchers, Rutschman will enter the 2021 season with only 154 professional plate appearances, split among three levels in the months after he was drafted. He hit .254/.351/.423 with four home runs, the highlight being an .894 OPS in short-season ball after a torrid stretch that preceded a promotion to Low-A for Delmarva’s playoff run.
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“He should get here [to Baltimore] pretty quickly, and I hope has a pretty smooth ride through the minor leagues, but he just hasn’t played minor league baseball yet, really,” Elias said. “He went out after he signed in the summer for a few weeks like most players do, and then the season got canceled, so the guy hasn’t played in Double-A or Triple-A. That’s really unprecedented. I think we’ve got to take it one step at a time here to try to check off those boxes.”
With spring training set to begin in about a month, much remains unclear about the format. Under regular circumstances, Rutschman would be an obvious selection as a nonroster invitee to camp, as he was last year in his first spring with the organization, but it’s possible the league will adopt a similar format to how the 2020 season operated amid the pandemic, where teams have a player pool with limited capacity, which last year was 60 players.
In that case, it’s possible the Orioles include Rutschman in their pool and have him participate in the major league/Triple-A portion of spring training while also remaining in Florida when the rest of their minor leaguers arrive. An alternative would be to have him start the season in April with Triple-A Norfolk, but given Elias’ propensity for making sure prospects have in effect mastered each level before receiving a promotion, it’s difficult to imagine the Orioles having their top prospect, no matter how polished he’s considered to be, skip from Low-A to Triple-A, even with a year at the alternate site between.
Still, if Rutschman performs at Double-A in the manner that a prospect of his caliber would traditionally be expected to, it won’t be long before he’s in Triple-A. But with the Double-A season’s delayed start, it’s possible such a promotion comes a month later than it traditionally might, narrowing the window in which he could pressure the Orioles to give him a late-season call-up.
It’s worth noting that in two seasons with Elias at the helm of baseball operations, the Orioles have yet to add a highly regarded prospect to the 40-man roster for a September promotion. In the case of both Ryan Mountcastle in 2019 and Yusniel Diaz in 2020, Baltimore waited until the following offseason to put them on the 40-man roster. Unless the Orioles find themselves with a catching need as a surprise playoff contender, it’s doubtful that formula would change in a rebuild, even for a prospect like Rutschman.
Regardless, in whatever format the 2021 minor league season takes on, the Orioles will do what they can to continue Rutschman’s development and get him the experience they think he needs to eventually become a staple at Camden Yards.
“We’re really glad we got him,” Elias said.