Adley Rutschman isn’t sure how much he will catch over the next two months as he completes his first full professional season. A game into his nascent tenure with Triple-A Norfolk, the Orioles’ — and now baseball’s — top prospect feels good physically, he said, and he is certain Baltimore will handle his workload appropriately.
“I trust that the Orioles have a plan for me, and they’ve had a plan for me all year, so I trust whatever they decide to do,” Rutschman said on a Zoom call Wednesday. “It’s worked out so far, and I’m very fortunate to be a part of this organization, so I know they have a plan, and I’m just looking forward to seeing how that unfolds.”
That statement applies as much to Rutschman’s defensive usage as he ends 2021 with the Tides as it does his role in the organization. Taken with the first overall pick in the 2019 draft, Rutschman has been the guiding light in the Orioles’ farm system since, and with the graduation of Tampa Bay Rays shortstop Wander Franco, he has ascended to the status of the sport’s top prospect.
His own graduation certainly won’t come until next season, with Baltimore’s poor record, the service time implications and a year of development largely lost to the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 all figuring to factor into the front office’s decision of when his impending arrival will come. But with this week’s promotion to Triple-A, only one more move up separates Rutschman from being an Oriole.
“I think you’ve got to celebrate all the small victories, and getting promoted is obviously a huge step and definitely a great experience,” Rutschman said. “I’m very blessed to be in the position I’m in right now, so very happy to be here and to be a step away.”
Between Double-A Bowie and now Norfolk, Rutschman, 23, has played every day he has been available to do so, with a stint at the All-Star Futures Game representing the exception. He was a rarity among the Orioles’ top prospects who have stayed healthy by remaining with one affiliate into August, but the organization felt he still had work to do with the Baysox. But even in a slow July — the only full month this year in which he struck out more than he walked — Rutschman’s OPS was over .800. He ended his Double-A tenure with a .274/.393/.512 batting line to go with 18 home runs while drawing 55 walks to 57 strikeouts.
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That plate discipline, birthed from a mindset of “swinging at pitches in the zone and pitches I can do damage on,” makes him the poster child of an approach permeating the farm system. It’s only one fashion in which he’s leading the way.
In addition to 51 starts at catcher with Bowie, Rutschman made 20 appearances at first base and another nine as designated hitter, part of the Orioles’ effort to keep Rutschman fresh through 2021. But it’s clear his value and his future is behind the plate. His acumen for working with pitchers quickly was on display in Norfolk. In Rutschman’s first Triple-A game, Tides pitchers didn’t allow a hit until the eighth inning, finishing off a one-hit shutout. Rutschman had twice as many hits himself, with a double and run-scoring single.
He came well-regarded for connecting with pitchers and has only expanded on that reputation as a professional. He now carries those traits to Norfolk.
“The biggest thing with pitchers is just knowing the guys, creating that relationship and just knowing how they want to attack guys, what their strengths, weaknesses are, things that I look for in them and in their delivery or whatever it is, whatever cues that they particularly have for themselves,” Rutschman said. “After each inning, it’s a new conversation, new things to be addressed and so we’re just talking a lot, and those conversations just help create those connections and just that feel for what we’re doing when we get out on the field.”
He recognizes the next two months will not be without their challenges. The Orioles would welcome him showing he can overcome them.
“There’s definitely some uncomfortability that comes with new situations and new settings,” Rutschman said, “but it’s all part of the process and all part of the learning experience.”
The next time Rutschman is thrust into one of those new experiences, it could come at Camden Yards. He is another step closer to that reality, with only one left to take.