One of the most frequent comments on BaltimoreBaseball.com is that Adley Rutschman should begin 2021 with the Orioles. He won’t, and he shouldn’t.
Rutschman, the No. 1 draft pick in June 2019, has played in just 37 professional games, catching only 17. He hasn’t played above Low-A Delmarva.
It wasn’t Rutschman’s fault that there was no minor league play in 2020. If the season hadn’t been canceled by the pandemic, he would have begun the year at High-A Frederick and could have been promoted to Double-A Bowie.
Then, perhaps, he would have begun 2021 at Triple-A and been promoted to the Orioles later in the season.
His timetable has likely been pushed back. No one knows what the makeup of the Orioles’ minor leagues will be in 2021, and we don’t know if Rutschman will start at High-A, or Double-A, wherever those franchises are.
The Orioles did their best to get Rutschman work in 2020, assigning him to the Bowie alternate site after they got another look at him in summer camp.
At Bowie, Rutschman got to catch the Orioles’ top pitching prospects — Michael Baumann, DL Hall, Zac Lowther, Isaac Mattson and Grayson Rodriguez, with whom he had worked at Delmarva in 2019. He also hit against those pitchers and others with major league experience.
An October spent at the Instructional League helped, but the weeks in Sarasota and the time in Bowie don’t make up for the minor league season Rutschman missed.
We don’t even know if the major league season will be a conventional 162 games, or one that’s much shorter. To start Rutschman in the major leagues would be unfair to him.
Executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias, who chose Rutschman in the draft, has been conservative in promoting other Oriole prospects, all of whom were drafted before Elias’ arrival.
Outfielder Anthony Santander didn’t come up for good until June 2019. Outfielder Austin Hays was finally summoned in September 2019, perhaps for good, and outfielder/infielder Ryan Mountcastle, who was learning left field in Bowie, didn’t make his major league debut until August. Those timings seem to have worked well.
Elias has been clear that he didn’t want to bring key minor leaguers up until they had a good chance to stay with the team. Bringing them up and then sending them down isn’t his strategy, although the team did briefly do that with left-hander Keegan Akin last August.
The Orioles had a situation that was comparable to Rutschman’s. In June 2007, just before Andy MacPhail was hired as the team’s president of baseball operations, they drafted another heralded catcher, Matt Wieters, fourth overall.
Wieters, represented by Scott Boras, was also a highly rated college catcher, and didn’t sign until the August 15th deadline.
The Orioles chose not to play him in the final days of the 2007 minor league season and sent him to winter ball in Hawaii instead.
In 2008, he began his professional career at Frederick, putting up terrific numbers for the Keys. Wieters hit .345 with a 1.029 OPS in 69 games.
After his promotion to Bowie, Wieters hit .365 with a 1.085 OPS in 61 games. In his time with the Keys and Baysox, Wieters hit 27 home runs and drove in 91 runs.
MacPhail, who helped set up the Orioles for their 2012-2016 success by acquiring Zack Britton, Chris Davis, J.J. Hardy, Adam Jones, Manny Machado and Chris Tillman, could have brought Wieters to Baltimore at the end of 2008.
The Orioles were going nowhere, suffering through their 11th straight losing season, and fans were eager to see Wieters.
But MacPhail refused to call him up, and he began 2009 at Triple-A Norfolk. After 39 games and a .305 average and .890 OPS with the Tides, Wieters was brought to Baltimore and debuted on May 29th.
Wieters had a solid career with the Orioles, and was one of the best catchers in team history, but he didn’t live up to the hype that accompanied his early years.
MacPhail did Buck Showalter, whom he hired in July 2010, and his successor, Dan Duquette, a favor by delaying Wieters’ debut.
To call Wieters up prematurely would have been, in MacPhail’s terminology, “front office malpractice.”
Thanks to MacPhail, Wieters stayed with the Orioles not only through 2014, when he missed most of the season after Tommy John surgery, but through 2015, when he was recovering from it. Wieters accepted a qualifying offer, extending his run with the Orioles through 2016.
Elias is hoping for even greater success with Rutschman, and if he delays the start of the Adley Era until late 2021 or 2022, he can have his star play with the team as it introduces more young prospects and presumably gets better.
With Rutschman’s lack of minor league experience, a hasty promotion could force Elias to do what he doesn’t want to, return Rutschman to the minors if he’s over his head.
Rutschman is strong mentally, and playing in the major leagues is difficult. With the minor league season still uncertain, it’s important that Rutschman experience the challenges that High-A, Double-A or Triple-A hand him before coming to the Orioles.
Elias isn’t sharing his private timetable for Rutschman, but he wants his time with the Orioles to coincide with the catcher’s best, and the team’s.