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Orioles reset: Top prospect Adley Rutschman’s Triple-A success is impressing his big league teammates

BOSTON — Each passing day brings a new player up from Triple-A Norfolk to the Orioles’ roster. For the past month, that means they’ve shared a field with catcher Adley Rutschman as baseball’s top prospect continues his development at the highest level of the minors.

Some of those former Tides teammates of Rutschman have plenty of major league experience and can evaluate him through that lens. Others have spent time coming up the ladder with Rutschman and beat him to the majors.

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All bring a similar impression of the star prospect to the major league roster: the hype is real.

“This was really the first time I got to play with him,” infielder Pat Valaika said. “I was very impressed. For a kid who is so young still, he’s got a great approach. He works hard. He plays really hard. Gosh, I think he’s had like one off day all year. He’s playing every single day, and he’s going to be really good. There’s no doubt about that.”

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Rutschman, the 2019 first overall draft pick, has been impressive since beginning his first full minor league season at Double-A Bowie in May. He hit. 271 with a .901 OPS and 18 home runs for the Baysox, and upon his promotion to Triple-A Norfolk on Aug. 10, elevated his performance quickly. He homered Sunday for the fourth time with the Tides and is batting .314 with a .937 OPS while playing 33 of 36 games since his promotion. He only missed two games at Bowie — when he traveled to the MLB All-Star Futures Game in Colorado.

His insistence on playing every day impresses his teammates, who say Rutschman doesn’t carry himself like an anointed figure and works just as hard anybody else to get better — and in some cases, harder.

“He comes in with a plan each and every day, he executes that plan,” right-hander Thomas Eshelman said. “He has a willingness to learn from the pitching staff and what they can do, and what they can excel on, and also he works his tail off in the cage with the hitting coaches every day — even sometimes after the games— to go and understand his swing better.”

Said Valaika: “He is so humble. You would never know that he’s the No. 1 prospect, the future, whatever. He doesn’t talk about it. He just goes about his business, just like one of the other guys. He doesn’t get treated any different way, and doesn’t expect to be treated any different. That’s cool in itself, you know? I’ve run across some players who are prospects and have all the hype, and they act a little different. But that’s not the case at all with Adley. He’s a great guy, stand-up guy, one of the teammates — and he’s great.”

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Rutschman’s impact on the team’s pitchers has been noticeable as well. Right-hander Mike Baumann said it’s “just his presence” that helps the staff improve, noting the care Rutschman takes to learn what works and how to maximize the pitchers’ strengths.

“I think that was the best part about Adley, he handles himself like a pro,” Baumann said. “He’s going to put his pitching staff first. He wants to see the pitcher succeed and he’s going to work for you behind the plate. I think he just makes everyone around him better.”

By thriving at Triple-A the way he has, Rutschman will be in position next spring to push for a roster spot right out of spring training, even if the current service time rules regarding club control and free agency make that unlikely. There’s also the possibility that his progress comes into focus at the big league level this month as Pedro Severino deals with a lingering groin injury.

Nick Ciuffo is on the taxi squad and would likely get the first crack at being added to the roster if the Orioles need a catcher, but there would certainly be rightful clamor to add Rutschman to give him a taste of the majors.

It would be a wild departure from the Orioles’ plan to do that, but even a gesture as simple as adding Rutschman to the taxi squad for the last series of the season in Toronto could give the top prospect a sense of what the very near future could hold for him in the big leagues.

What’s to come?

The last top overall pick with the level of hype Rutschman has received, Bryce Harper, will be building his National League Most Valuable Player case this week when the Orioles visit the Philadelphia Phillies for three games before the long-awaited four-game respite against the Texas Rangers.

Three wins against the Orioles (47-102) seems like a requirement for the Phillies (76-72 entering Sunday) to get to the postseason in a crowded NL wild-card race, and will end Philadelphia’s run of 12 straight games against teams in postseason contention. Texas (55-94) will be coming off a similar stretch, arriving in Baltimore from a three-game series with the New York Yankees after facing the Oakland Athletics, Houston Astros and Chicago White Sox in the last week-plus.

Considering the Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays are the Orioles’ last opponents, the weekend with the Rangers will be as easy as it gets the rest of the way.

What was good?

The Orioles didn’t score much last week, with just 18 runs in six games against the Yankees and Red Sox after some high-scoring games earlier in the homestand. When they did score, however, Austin Hays seemed to feature prominently. He homered three times, drove in the winning run with the bases loaded against the Yankees in the 10th inning of their only victory of the week and added a two-run single to help close the gap with Boston early Sunday.

Hays is batting .254 with a .766 OPS after entering September with a .721 OPS. Now, when manager Brandon Hyde speaks of cornerstone-type players like Cedric Mullins and Ryan Mountcastle, he includes Hays among them again.

What wasn’t?

The Orioles’ handling of Jahmai Jones’ club debut and hasty return to the minors was a bit odd. The club was thrilled to get Jones in the spring for starting pitcher Alex Cobb, and paid a good chunk of Cobb’s salary to the Los Angeles Angels to do so. Jones was slowed early by an oblique injury before hitting well, but didn’t get a chance in the majors while he was at his best. He’d slowed down by late August, when the Orioles called him up. He was 9-for-55 in the majors and had some tough moments defensively and was sent back to Norfolk on Thursday.

In the past, the Orioles have waited until prospects forced the issue to bring them to Baltimore — DJ Stewart, Chance Sisco and Anthony Santander come to mind in 2019, as does Hays at the end of that season. Jones wasn’t doing that at the time of his call-up, but he came up anyway and got three weeks of experience before Valaika’s ability to play shortstop pushed him off the roster.

Playing every day is valuable, but so is learning in the big leagues. Jones was clear last week that he’s doing that. For an organization so focused on the long-term view, it’s interesting to see Jones handled this way.

On the farm

In 2019 at Low-A Delmarva, outstanding young pitchers in Grayson Rodriguez and Drew Rom, plus a talented lineup bolstered by 2019 draft picks, crashed out of the South Atlantic League playoffs to put a sour ending on what was one of the best minor league seasons any team had that year.

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That group will get a chance to end this season on a different note as a comeback win Sunday over Altoona put Double-A Bowie into the playoffs on the final day of the season. The Baysox will host Akron on Tuesday and Wednesday at Prince George’s Stadium for the first two games of a best-of-five series to determine the first Double-A Northeast champion.

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