BALTIMORE -- The clamor has long been palpable, stemming from when the Orioles selected him first overall in the 2019 MLB Draft. But in recent days and weeks, now that Adley Rutschman appears to be back to full power, it has grown deafening.
The Orioles, as they’ve long advertised, are utilizing patience over when to employ their top prospect and face of the rebuild for his long-awaited debut. No amount of struggle at the catching position at the Major League level will alter that course -- something also long advertised.
That’s what Orioles manager Brandon Hyde reaffirmed prior to Friday’s series opener against the Rays at Camden Yards. Rutschman, who was out of the lineup for Triple-A Norfolk on Friday after three consecutive days catching (his first time doing so in his rehab from a right triceps strain), will only be in Baltimore when the circumstances align for him alone.
“The decision with Adley is going to be about Adley,” Hyde said. “They will call him up when they feel like he's ready.”
What exactly is required to reach that level of readiness is up to the front office. Executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said on April 6, the eve of Opening Day, that Rutschman, when he returns to “a full-activity version of himself,” is going to be back to where he left off before his injury in early March, which was “a very clear shot to impact this team.”
There has been little indication of what date might be circled internally. (MLB Network Insider Jon Heyman did report on Thursday afternoon that Rutschman’s callup is likely to come before the end of May.)
“The decision with Adley is going to be, ultimately, when they feel like he's ready," Hyde repeated.
To date, it has been a slow burn. Once Rutschman was cleared to leave extended spring camp, the injury eradicating any chance for Grapefruit League action, he reported to High-A Aberdeen. In seven games there and with Double-A Bowie, he slashed .423/.484/.615 (1.099 OPS) with five doubles before moving to Norfolk, the level where he ended the 2021 season, alongside lefty DL Hall.
Rutschman, 24, has found his power stroke in his old stomping grounds, with three homers (two this week) across 12 games. He’s slashing .233/.377/.442 (.819 OPS), and he helped shepherd top pitching prospect Grayson Rodriguez to an 11-strikeout performance on Tuesday. That outing was an important benchmark -- it launched a string of three consecutive games that Rutschman squatted behind the plate, the first time he has done so in this injury rehab.
Receiving a breather on Friday could be indicative of Rutschman’s final bar to clear, going through a full workload of a week in the Minors as some form of dry run before he does so in the Majors. Granted, Rutschman will get games as the designated hitter and possibly at first base to get him out from behind the plate whenever he does debut.
Drumming up some of the fans’ impatience is the lack of production the Orioles are receiving from the catching position. With time split exclusively between Robinson Chirinos and Anthony Bemboom, Baltimore has seen the worst production from its backstops by Fangraphs’ WAR standards (-0.8) and is tied for second worst in wRC+ (42). Neither Chirinos (.491) nor Bemboom (.426) own an OPS north of .500, combining for just seven extra-base hits entering play on Friday.
But that’s irrelevant as far as Rutschman is concerned. And Hyde does appreciate what each has done in guiding a revelatory pitching staff to date, with the Orioles boasting a team ERA of 3.86 (tied for 18th in the Majors) after finishing comfortably last in 2021 at 5.85.
“It has nothing to do with how our guys are doing behind the plate, because they've done an absolutely fantastic job handling our pitchers,” Hyde said. “I’ve been extremely pleased with both guys. Unbelievably professional. … I've been really pleased with what we've done behind the plate.”
Hyde did acknowledge that whenever Rutschman’s day does come, it will incite a “challenging” conversation with whoever’s roster spot he takes, the consequential downside of what will otherwise be a calendar-marking day, possibly for years to come, in Baltimore. Just call it TBD.