BOWIE, Md. — With the Rays promoting Wander Franco to the Majors this week, the lane is clear for Adley Rutschman to claim the title of baseball’s top overall prospect. That official declaration could take weeks, depending on how long it takes Franco to shake his prospect status. But the writing is on the wall.
The underlying reality here: While rankings can vary, the consensus best player in the Minor Leagues suits up every night for the Orioles’ Double-A affiliate Bowie Baysox.
Now the countdown to his arrival can begin in earnest.
“My goal is to be the best player that ever played the game,” Rutschman told MLB.com. “That’s the ultimate goal. But more suited to me is: I just want to reach my potential. That’s changed for me, in a sense. When I was younger, it was all about: I want to be the greatest. Now it’s: I just want to be the best Adley Rutschman I can be. And I think, in my mind, that player is very good and very successful.”
That’s what the Orioles bet a big chunk of their rebuild on since drafting Rutschman No. 1 overall in 2019, fresh off an extremely decorated career at Oregon State. Nearly two years to the day from that historic selection, little has occurred to alter their projections. Rutschman is the headliner on a star-studded Bowie roster alongside the Orioles’ No. 2 prospect (No. 19 overall) Grayson Rodriguez and No. 4 prospect, lefty D.L. Hall (No. 54 overall); Rutschman is hitting .289 with 11 home runs, a .964 OPS and as many walks (34) as strikeouts (34) through 41 games.
“You look up at the board and try to think, ‘When did he have a big game?’” Baysox manager Buck Britton said. “Is this just what you come to expect? He’s at [.289] with  homers and we’re a month and a half into the year, and you’re like, ‘I can’t wait for Adley to get hot.’”
There was a five-week stretch recently when Rutschman homered every Sunday, spurring chatter of biblical allusions. The distance of his home runs inspires all sorts of other tales, and his exit velocity readings run hotter than Prince George’s Stadium’s notoriously fickle stadium radar gun. But obvious tools aside, Rutcshman’s real genius is in the aggregate; his big power, high-OBP and plus-defensive style, tailor-made for the way value is measured at the Major League level.
For examples of Rutschman’s steady, little frills production, focus on this week. His main contribution to Tuesday’s 10-5 loss to New Hampshire came quickly, in the form of a two-run, laser-beam first-inning home run that sent a charge through Prince George’s Stadium. Though he went hitless in his next four at-bats, Rutschman made an impact when he threw out Jays No. 11 prospect Otto Lopez attempting to steal second in the seventh with the type of on-the-money throw rarely seen consistently at Double-A.
By the end, Rutschman’s final line looked pedestrianly productive: 1-for-5, 2-run HR in a five-run loss. But it didn’t illustrate the full impact he had on the game, with the caught stealing and several fine blocks to save runs behind the plate, as the Baysox’s bullpen languished in the middle innings. Now multiply that times every day. His 11 homers lead the Orioles’ system, and are tied for second most across all of Double-A. His OBP is best in the system, fourth across the level. He’s drawn more walks than anyone at Double-A or Triple-A.
“He’s different. He’s very confident. Every day, same Adley. And the skills, the God-given abilities, jump off the chart,” Britton said. “This game comes easy to him. Behind the plate, we have metrics, and he’s on top of the league in all of those metrics. When he struggles offensively, it’s only when he tries to do too much, when he tries to be the hero with the bases loaded and two outs and overswings.”
The defense, though, never slumps. Rutschman is so advanced defensively, the Orioles have been ultra-conservative with his positioning, only starting him behind the plate three games per week this season. (The other three games? Two at first base, one at designated hitter.) Britton said he will start catching four games per week soon; the slow ramp-up comes with an eye toward Rutschman’s long-term durability. The Orioles are super-cognizant of how the rigors of catching every day chisels at the careers of even the best bat-first catchers, notably Joe Mauer and Buster Posey.
“He’s a tremendous presence behind the plate,” Baysox pitching coach Justin Ramsey said. “It looks like a target you want to throw to. He calls a good game. And we all know the tools in terms of receiving, blocking and throwing. But as far as what it takes to help a staff, everybody likes to listen and throw to him. That’s always a compliment.”
All of which is to say, in simple terms: Rutschman is progressing precisely as the Orioles hoped, even if his timeline is slightly delayed. That is more due to the pandemic than anything within Rutschman’s or the club’s control. Without the pandemic, this Double-A run likely would’ve come last summer, and been handled with more caution. Now, it’s not difficult to envision Rutschman (and Rodriguez) at Triple-A by season’s end, and knocking down the door in big league camp in 2022.
Why not earlier? The Orioles have little reason to rush Rutschman, given their last-place standing at the big league level and the year of contractual control they’d lose by summoning him this summer. The service time issue will likely linger into the spring, especially if Rutschman performs well quickly at Triple-A and big league camp. They are also conscious of how few Minor League games he’s actually played: 78 across parts of two seasons, plus the time spent at last year’s alternate site. Not that it shows, or that he’s complaining.
“The staff here preaches the process, and I am all about committing to the process,” Rutschman said. “So as long as I’m getting better, that’s the most important part. I’m just trying to reach my potential, and that’s all you can really ask for someone. I just feel like I’m getting closer every day.”