Imagine being just 23 years old and getting a promotion to the Major Leagues to fill in for the injured Troy Tulowitzki.
That's what happened to Rockies middle infielder Josh Rutledge last year. In only his second full season (and third overall) of professional baseball, Rutledge made his Major League debut in July. He played shortstop while Tulowitzki was on the disabled list.
Rutledge has always been able to hit. From what I have seen while scouting the right-handed hitter from Cullman, Ala., his bat is his most advanced tool. It would be a mistake to think Rutledge is anything but a complete player. He can beat the opposition with his bat, his legs or his glove.
Rutledge was a four-year starter on his Cullman High School baseball team. In his senior year, he hit .454 with 12 home runs and 69 RBIs, earning him the honor of Alabama Class 5A High School Player Of The Year.
Sorting through his options after high school, Rutledge chose to attend his home state University of Alabama, where his hitting continued and he gained the attention of scouts.
As a freshman, Rutledge hit .369. He was only the second freshman in school history to lead the team in hitting. Rutledge managed to steal 16 bases that season, showing his speed as a major tool. He had 31 multihit games.
Colorado selected Rutledge in the third round of the 2010 First-Year Player Draft.
Rutledge got his first exposure to Minor League baseball when he played for Class A Tri-City in the Northwest League. He played in 11 games and went to the plate only 45 times, hitting .128. Because Rutledge suffered a wrist injury during his stay at Tri-City, there was a very limited sample of what was to come.
Rutledge's first complete season was in 2011, when he played at Class A Modesto in the California League. The environment is good for hitters, but sound mechanics are essential for success. Rutledge showed more of the player scouts had seen at University of Alabama. He hit a very loud .348, with nine home runs and 71 RBIs covering 523 plate appearances. Of note is that all of Rutledge's home runs came in the second half of the season, when his hitting really took off. He also stole 16 bases while being caught stealing only three times. Among Rutledge's 160 hits were 33 doubles and nine triples. The only potential blemish on his season was a rather low 41 walks. Rutledge showed he'd rather hit the ball than take a walk.
Rutledge began last season playing for Double-A Tulsa in the Texas League. Again, he proved his bat was for real. Rutledge hit .306 in 379 plate appearances before being summoned to Denver to take the place of the injured Tulowitzki.
Rutledge had 13 homers and 35 RBIs at Tulsa before being promoted. He had stolen 14 bases while being caught stealing four times. Rutledge walked 14 times.
I first saw Rutledge play during his fill-in stint at shortstop for the Rockies late in the 2012 season. I was impressed with what I saw. It was not evident Rutledge was a rookie. He fit right in. Rutledge's maturity and baseball savvy were likely among the traits that persuaded the club to promote him at such a young age. That, and quality performance on both sides of the ball.
Rutledge has a very easy, uncomplicated swing. There is little to no motion in his setup prior to the pitch. Rutledge has a short, compact swing that is geared to hitting the ball up the middle. He makes good contact with the barrel of the bat, showing an ability to hit line drives to the gaps.
While he is an excellent athlete, Rutledge is not very big, at 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds. Now 24, he might add some weight due to his training regimen, but it's likely there isn't much in the way of additional growth coming his way.
With a rather flat swing plane, Rutledge has enough raw power to hit some home runs every season with line drives that carry over the outfield wall. However, home runs won't be the focal point of his offensive game. Rather, Rutledge should drive in his share of runs with timely base hits or well-struck doubles to the gap.
I would not like to see Rutledge change his hitting style in order to increase his home run production. His level swing works just fine. There is a definite role for him in the power-packed Rockies lineup.
Rutledge has very good knowledge of the strike zone. He is not fooled easily and doesn't chase bad pitches. Rutledge's good eye-hand coordination allows him to pass through the ball with quick enough hands to avoid a hefty number of swings and misses.
To find success, a hitter must consistently hit the ball hard. Chances are, balls will ultimately clear the defense. Rutledge is the type of hitter that may see his line drives land in the opposition's glove more often than he'd prefer. Advance scouting reports will target where he hits. Rutledge will have to work hard to avoid frustration. He will have to make slight adjustments to avoid the defenses. The hits will come.
Defensively, Rutledge has excellent range, with a quick first step and very good footwork. I have seen him move quickly and accurate in all directions to make difficult plays look easy. Rutledge's arm is strong and accurate. I think he fits well at second base, exactly where Colorado is playing him.
The Rockies' lineup is loaded with thunder. Rutledge gives them the type of consistent Major League-quality offensive and defensive player that can be counted upon on a daily basis. His tools may not be star quality, but he is certainly productive.
Bernie Pleskoff has served as a professional scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. Follow @BerniePleskoff on Twitter.