BALTIMORE — This weekend’s inclement weather forced the Orioles to extend their homestand by a day, keeping them at Camden Yards through Monday before they embark on a six-day road trip through the upper Midwest.
It may be their last day at home without Adley Rutschman.
No, Rutschman’s debut wasn’t imminent by the time the Orioles split their Mother's Day doubleheader against the Royals on Sunday, winning the nightcap, 4-2, after losing 6-4 in Game 1. But with the club’s top prospect returning healthy to Triple-A Norfolk this weekend, the horizon feels more near than ever before.
“He’s ready,” Trey Mancini said. “Now, it’s just a matter of time.”
Why soon? Rutschman was always likeliest to begin the year at Triple-A but wasn’t expected to stay there long, maybe a few weeks at minimum if everything went to plan.
It didn’t. The triceps injury Rutschman suffered in Spring Training delayed that plan, forcing him to instead spend those weeks rehabbing his way back to Norfolk. He returned to questions about how much he has left to prove at the level, after hitting .312/.405/.490 in 43 games there in 2021. He also raked on his rehab assignment, and has gone 3-for-10 with two walks in his first three games back with the Tides.
Building for years, anticipation is now bubbling up -- both outside the warehouse and within -- for Rutschman and the wave of prospects pegged to arrive behind him.
“Fans should be excited,” O’s manager Brandon Hyde said. "It’s great to have players like that coming soon.”
Since Mike Elias assumed control of baseball operations in November 2018, the Orioles rebuilt their now-top ranked farm system, overhauling their Minor League operations, stockpiling prospects and attempting to grow an attractive culture at the big league level for those prospects to one day arrive into. Methodically. They never rushed any of those blue-chippers, even when individual results seemed to warrant it and as the losses piled up in Baltimore.
A few examples:
- Ryan Mountcastle tore up Triple-A in 2019, and began 2020 back in Norfolk.
- Top pitching prospects Grayson Rodriguez and D.L. Hall jumped only one level between the end of 2019 and start of 2021, despite the pandemic washing out the entire 2020 Minor League season.
- Cuban infielder Cesar Prieto entered the organization this year as a 23-year-old in Single-A.
- Rutschman was considered one of the most polished college prospects ever when the Orioles drafted him No. 1 overall in 2019 -- then began him in Rookie ball. He’s appeared at every rung of Baltimore’s system, some twice, and has produced constantly.
“Even in 2021 you could tell, the way he carried himself, the way the ball comes off his bat -- he’s a pro,” Mancini said of Rutschman. “It's exciting. Obviously, being the first overall pick comes with a lot of anticipation and excitement. We've all seen him up close in Spring Training. I think for the fans, too, it's gonna be really exciting when he makes his debut.”
From the day he was hired, Elias spoke in terms of a long-term plan. He’s rarely deviated from its main tenet: patience. All told, 23 of the club’s Top 30 prospects according to MLB Pipeline are his acquisitions. Only one -- No. 10 Kyle Bradish -- has arrived. Rutschman is almost certainly next. He might well open the floodgates.
“I've been waiting for a while now for that big wave,” Mancini said. “This year has had a different feel than the last couple years. I don't know how to explain it, but it does. And I'm not just saying that. I think the culture is starting to get in place, and some guys have cemented themselves a lot more on the way. That is an exciting time in a rebuild. It's the first big step.”
The hope for the Orioles is that by the end of the summer, it marks a turning point. Bradish is in the rotation. Rodriguez, the game’s top-ranked pitching prospect, is reunited with Rutschman at Triple-A and throwing well. Hall will join them this week. Behind No. 8 outfielder Kyle Stowers, No. 18 lefty Kevin Smith and others at Norfolk is a second prospect wave, including Top 10 position players Gunnar Henderson, Colton Cowser, Jordan Westburg and Coby Mayo.
“We’ve heard those guys’ names for a few years now,” Cedric Mullins said. “We have our talks about how things will look when they’re here. It’s about making them feel comfortable when they arrive and them being ready to perform at their best.”
No matter how that group ultimately pans out, many will view Rutschman’s arrival as a harbinger of better days soon to come. That’s certainly been the sentiment outside the Orioles clubhouse -- now its gaining traction inside those walls, at what looks like the precipice of his debut.
“It’s taken a while … but the organization is in much better shape than say, the All-Star break in 2018, when we were starting from square one,” Mancini said. “It’ll get lots of attention once everybody's up here and the team is winning a lot of games in a playoff race, but it has to start a year or two before whenever you get that group in there. It is exciting to see the first signs of that happening.”