When the Orioles drafted Adley Rutschman with the top overall pick in the 2019 MLB Draft, it was with the expectation that he would move through the farm system quickly and make an early impact in the majors.
The lost minor league season as a result of the coronavirus pandemic put a dent into those plans, as Rutschman has yet to play a full season of professional baseball. But it didn't take away his polish and maturity, two elements that helped make him one of the most hyped draft prospects in a decade.
According to scouts who have seen him this fall, Rutschman still looks like one of the best catching prospects ever. In fact, he might already be one of the best catchers in baseball at any level - including the majors.
"Evaluators opined he was not only ready for the major leagues, but that he would be one of MLB's best catchers immediately," according to Baseball America.
This is strong praise, especially at a position like catcher. Typically, the learning curve for backstops is extremely steep thanks to the mental side of the game - it's not easy to learn how to work with an entire pitching staff while scouting how to call opposing hitters, and oh, by the way, still learning to hit MLB pitching for the first time.
But in the eyes of the scouts who have seen him, Rutschman is just that special. Whether you look at FanGraphs, MLB Pipeline, Baseball America, or elsewhere, it doesn't make a difference - he is a consensus top-three prospect in all of baseball according to just about everyone. And he is considered to have both the best hit tool and best power in the Orioles system, all while providing excellent defense and great polish.
In short: there's no such thing as a can't-miss prospect, but if there was, it would look a whole lot like Adley Rutschman.
MLB Pipeline's Jonathan Mayo spoke with Steve Melewski of MASN on Monday, and his thoughts echoed what evaluators are seeing.
“I would be surprised if he’s not in the big leagues in 2021," Mayo said in the interview. "The only thing that is holding him back is the fact that he didn't play this year, but I think he got valuable experience at the alternate site. He got to catch a lot of high-level pitchers, guys who ended up in the big leagues."
But for as many benefits as Rutschman will take away from this unorthodox summer, there weren't too many holes in his game to address, anyway.
"I don’t think there was a whole lot he needed to do to be able to contribute at the big league level. To be honest with you, he probably could have contributed this year," Mayo said. "Now, would he have been outstanding? I don't know. He would have figured things out and made adjustments. But I think that it’s not going to take very long, give him some time, just time to get some more reps and actual at-bats in competition, and I think his play will dictate how quickly he moves up. But if you told me he'd be in Baltimore by the All-Star break, I certainly would have no problem believing that.”
If Mayo is to be believed, Orioles fans could be cheering on Rutschman at the big league level by mid-summer. And if fall league scouts are to be believed, they may be cheering on one of the best catchers in all of baseball when they do.
J.T. Realmuto is about to cash in during free agency, but after him there's a bit of a starpower vacuum at the position right now. Yadier Molina and Buster Posey are just about aged out of their effectiveness, and names like Yasmani Grandal, Salvador Perez and Wilson Contreras are good players but not superstars. So there's definitely the space for Rutschman to make his presence felt immediately.
Some teams have great depth in their farm systems, while others rely on a handful of elite talents. For Mayo, whose team at MLB Pipeline recently moved the Orioles to eighth-best in all of baseball, sometimes all it takes is one generational face of the franchise.
"The fact that they have the best catching prospect and one of the best all around prospects in all of baseball right at the top," Mayo said. “There are certain players that just their singular presence moves you up some, and Adley Rutschman is one of those kind of players."