With the opportunity to select first overall in Monday’s draft playing a significant role in the Orioles’ future, the club finds itself in the fortunate position of having two potential generational talents at the top of the player pool.
Draft analysts have struggled to find a fault in Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman and Texas high school shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. as they break down the crop of players set to enter baseball's 30 farm systems next week.
No matter which way the Orioles go — and they have their scouts in Baltimore this weekend to begin formalizing the pick — they'll be making a choice that will pit the two players' performances against each another for the rest of their careers. The first draft of executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias' tenure will be judged on whether Rutschman, Witt or another player selected by the Orioles lives up to their projections to have the best major league career.
For the top two in Rutschman and Witt, there will be a lofty standard to meet.
At 6 feet 2 and 216 pounds, Rutschman isn't the squat catcher of old, as he carries a more modern and manageable body for the position. As the man who caught Oregon State's stellar pitching staff all the way to the College World Series title in 2018, Rutschman has earned plenty of acclaim behind the plate, where most public scouting services have him rated as a future plus catcher.
Perfect Game had him in the low-1.9 second range on his pop times on his throws from home to second base on stolen base attempts. The major league average is 2.0 seconds, while the Philadelphia Phillies’ J.T. Realmuto is leading the league with an average 1.85-second pop time, according to MLB's Statcast data. Rutschman also grades well as a receiver and manager of a staff.
Rutschman's value in the future comes at the plate. The switch-hitter always had a good approach, but hit .234 with a .628 OPS as a freshman and vowed to overhaul his swing the following summer. He continued to have a keen eye at the plate, but hit .408 with 34 extra-base hits and an 1.133 OPS as a sophomore before starring for Team USA after the College World Series. The 21-year-old has backed it up with a .419 batting average and a 1.345 OPS as a junior this season in a lineup that lost three first-round picks from a year ago.
Rutschman has an all-fields swing that allows him to go the other way, and his approach means he won't often expose the vulnerabilities his swing might have.
The expectations on Rutschman at No. 1 overall would be similar to the Orioles’ hopes for Matt Wieters (fifth overall in 2007), or — more successfully — the Minnesota Twins’ for Joe Mauer (No. 1 overall pick in 2001) or the San Francisco Giants’ for Buster Posey (fifth overall in 2008). They’d hope for him to develop into a middle-of-the-order fixture who can produce offensively at catcher, a position where so many teams sacrifice the bat for defense.
Bobby Witt Jr.
The son of 1985 first-round pick and longtime major leaguer Bobby Witt and nephew of Orioles scout Doug Witt, Witt has prodigious power at a premium position, elevating him to the top of the draft board. A shortstop at Colleyville (Texas) Heritage High, Witt won the High School Home Run Derby at last year's MLB All-Star Game in Washington. But it's not just showcase power, as he's universally graded as having plus power in the future.
Many of the public evaluators refer to some contact problems Witt had during last year's summer schedule — where players travel from showcase to showcase to play against top competition for scouts — but note that those concerns have subsided.
With strikeouts now an accepted part of the game as long as aggressive swings do damage when they connect, it's hard to tell how legitimate the concerns about Witt’s contact will be by the time this draft class reaches the big leagues.
Defense is what many evaluators feel separates Witt from a typical bat-first player who is a shortstop, because seemingly every good high school player is a shortstop. He's a consensus plus defender who can make all the throws and is considered the top defensive shortstop in this class, making him a potential five-tool player because of his plus speed.
There are plenty of examples of what the Orioles would be hoping for with a shortstop selected with the top overall pick, many of whom have worked out well. The Houston Astros' first pick of the regime that featured Elias was Carlos Correa, a Puerto Rican high school shortstop. He's one of four high school shortstops selected in the top 10 this decade who have developed into foundational franchise players, the others being Javier Báez of the Chicago Cubs, Francisco Lindor of the Cleveland Indians and former Oriole Manny Machado.