You always hate to put too many expectations on a young player who was just taken in a draft. That’s all the more true in baseball, when there’s almost always a fairly lengthy period of development and preparation in the minor leagues before said player will even be ready to test himself at the game’s highest level.
But every situation is different. And last night’s draft seemed to represent a rare match of a desperate franchise with an exceptionally well-suited top selection when the Orioles chose Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman first overall.
By definition, teams selecting first overall are in a tough spot when it comes to their MLB roster. It’s awfully tough to turn a club around immediately after pacing the league in losses in the prior season. But the Orioles were in especially dire straits after a calamitous attempt at one more season of contention before launching a rebuild.
The on-field product at Camden Yards was really poor last year and remains so at present. While the farm system isn’t barren, it was and is generally regarded as a bottom-third outfit. And the club’s new front office leadership is only just starting the arduous task of building out an international operation.
The first overall draft pick is a nice consolation prize for a wretched season; it’s one the O’s may well pick up for multiple years running. But it doesn’t always convey as much draft power as you might wish. The Diamondbacks, not the Orioles, had the highest overall spending capacity this year since they were able to secure some lofty comp selections.
More importantly, you’re always limited by the players available. Last year, the Tigers were glad to find Casey Mize at 1-1, though pitching prospects are always riskier. The Astros were able to get creative back in 2012, selecting Carlos Correa instead of consensus top prospect Byron Buxton and reallocating some bonus space for later draft targets. But that was only possible because there were two exceptional talents. In some years, there aren’t any slam dunks. Browse back through the recent history of top overall picks and you’ll find quite a few that did not stand out as obvious selections at the time (and haven’t necessarily worked out as hoped).
With the first overall pick, you want a combination of upside and floor. You want it all in terms of talent and makeup. Preferably the player is not just toolsy but advanced enough to be a relatively near-term MLB option. And when you’re in as deep a hole as the Orioles, especially, you are hoping that this special player is capable of taking on the immense pressure that comes with such a selection.
On the surface, Rutschman is all of that and more. He’s a switch-hitting catcher with outstanding abilities on both sides of the ball and a history of performance at the highest levels of the collegiate ranks.
True, there were some other blue chippers in this class. In particular, second overall selection Bobby Witt Jr. had a case to get the top nod. He’s got all the tools and comes with big league bloodlines. If you’re wary of putting too much stock in a guy who’ll take a lot of wear and tear behind the dish, maybe Witt was a better selection. As a high schooler, he wouldn’t be expected to push immediately towards the majors.
Expectations are certainly lofty for Rutschman. He already led OSU to a title. As an advanced college player, he’ll be expected to perform well out of the gates and move swiftly up to the bigs … where team-level expectations will immediately rise.
Rutschman spoke last night in a way that should resonate with Orioles fans: “I’m going to control what I can control and play the best that I can play and work as hard as I can. I think everything else is going to take care of itself.” It’s a humble statement on the surface, but one that’s also laden with expectations when you consider the context. With Rutschman leading the way, will everything else fall into place for the Orioles?