Although the 2020 Minor League Baseball season was cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, catcher Adley Rutschman advanced his development. While this year’s progress is not enough for him to make an immediate impact in the majors, it does seem that the Baltimore Orioles can move their top prospect through the minors quickly.
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Had the 2020 MiLB unfolded as originally scheduled, Rutschman—who was selected out of Oregon State with the top-overall pick in the 2019 Draft—would have likely begun the year in High-A Frederick. If he had produced as expected and remained healthy, a promotion to Double-A Bowie all but certainly would have followed over the summer. However, after the traditional minor-league season was cancelled because of the pandemic, Rutschman joined other top prospects at the Orioles’ alternate training site in Bowie.
The effect that the cancelled minor-league season has on Rutschman—or many of the Orioles’ other prospects, for that matter—will be unknown until players can get back on the field in normal game action. The scarce information that was reported from the alternate training site also presents some limitations in evaluating his progress, but most accounts of Rutschman’s time in Bowie were positive. He continued to receive acclaim as one of the best prospects in all of baseball, while also gaining experience against more advanced competition.
Rutschman is following that up with a stint at the Orioles’ instructional league in Sarasota, allowing him to get more development time under the organization’s watch before the year draws to a close. With that in mind, how quickly can we expect Rutschman to reach the majors? A 2021 debut might be a long shot for now (more on that shortly), but he is very much in line for a 2022 debut.
Provided that the 2021 minor-league season takes place on a normal schedule, something that is not guaranteed at this point, Rutschman should be set to open the year in Double-A. He should be able to skip High-A because his track record includes success at a major Division I program, and he received plenty development opportunities in lieu of the MiLB season in 2020. Look for Rutcshman to spend at least the first two or three months of the 2021 season in Double-A, before the Orioles consider promoting him to Triple-A. While it remains to be seen how long he would be in Triple-A, Rutschman would benefit from some time there, as it would allow him to catch a mix of younger prospects on their way to Baltimore and older pitchers who have previous major-league experience.
When it comes to the timing of a promotion to the majors, Rutschman is certainly the type of player the Orioles would hold back because of service-time considerations. In other words, if they can keep Rutschman in the minors for the few weeks of the 2022 season to delay his free agency, and potentially his arbitration eligibility, they certainly will. If those parameters are in place, then I expect that Rutschman could debut in either May or June of 2022, with a short return to Triple-A preceding his call-up to Baltimore.
For now, it is best to expect that service-time considerations will be in play, but there is a chance for things to change between now and the start of the 2022 season. The current collective bargaining agreement expires after the 2021 season, and negotiations between MLB and the Players Association could change service time rules to end the practice of teams manipulating them. Another possibility is that the Orioles opt to extend Rutschman before he ever appears in the major leagues.
There is not much of a precedence for catchers signing extensions before their debuts—Salvador Perez might come closest, as he had accrued just 50 days of service time before signing a long-term deal with the Kansas City Royals just prior to the 2012 season—perhaps owing to the risk associated with the position. Time will tell, but perhaps the Orioles feel confident enough in Rutschman to pull the trigger on a contract before the 2022 season.
As for possible alternate timelines for Rutschman reaching the majors, only an unforeseen circumstance—such as a major injury—would probably prevent him from debuting any time after the initial months of the 2022 season. What about 2021, when the Orioles could seemingly find an opening for Rutschman in the second half? The only scenario in which I foresee him debuting next year is if the 2021 Orioles are identical to the 2012 Orioles: a young team making a surprising playoff run, but one that is in need of help at a key position.
In 2012, it was Manny Machado who was promoted to the majors from Bowie in August to take over at third base. The rest was history, as the Orioles ultimately made it to the playoffs that year while Machado went on to be named an All-Star four times in Baltimore before being traded in July 2018. Should history repeat itself in 2021, Rutschman could be what Machado was to the 2012 Orioles. Otherwise, if the Orioles are out of the playoff race by next August, they will probably wait until the following season to promote Rutschman.
In all, the loss of the 2020 minor-league season was an inconvenience in Rutschman’s development, but it should not set him back for too long. He is still far and away the best prospect in a rapidly improving farm system and should be a part of the Orioles’ major-league roster in the not-too-distant future.
A graduate of the University of Massachusetts, and Loyola University; Spedden has previously spent time in the Washington Nationals organization as a videographer for the Hagerstown Suns. As a blogger, Spedden is an Editor / Writer for the Suns fan club. Additionally, he contributes to The Nats Blog as a prospect writer, and Ballpark Digest. For BSL, Spedden covers the Orioles Minor Leagues. Co-Host of The Verge: https://anchor.fm/the-verge