O's get taste of what a No. 1 pick can do

Tigers' Mize a blueprint for prospect Rutschman's trajectory

July 31st, 2021

As the Orioles approach another Trade Deadline that may or may not significantly impact their future, they found themselves in Detroit on Thursday locking horns, for the first time, with young Tigers right-hander Casey Mize. Detroit drafted Mize first overall in 2018, months before the Orioles began the initial stages of their rebuild, and a year before Baltimore would take No. 1 overall in the 2019 Draft.

Like Rutschman for the Orioles, Mize was, at the time, the Tigers’ first top overall pick in a generation. These days, he’s grown into a big part of their present, and the team is playing as well as it has in years. Which is why to watch Mize in control for seven innings Thursday night at Comerica Park was to consider the development of Rutschman, who is red-hot at Double-A Bowie but remains at Bowie.

That had already become a talking point this week before Mize outpitched fellow rookie to hand the Orioles a 6-2 defeat, which featured Miguel Cabrera’s 496th and 497th career home runs.

“He got taken in the Draft where he did for a reason,” O’s manager Brandon Hyde said. “That’s what 1-1 picks look like. He has aggressiveness in the strike zone, good slider, good split. Mid-90s fastball with movement ... from our hitters' reactions, the way they were continuing to get beat in and off the plate in, he obviously has a really live fastball. That’s a guy you have to get in the middle of the plate.”

Managing four hits and one unearned run off Mize, the Orioles’ best scoring chance came immediately, when Cedric Mullins tripled to lead off the game. He was erased in a rundown on Trey Mancini’s fielder’s choice two batters later; the O’s didn’t get another runner to third against Mize until the seventh, when Ryan McKenna scored on left fielder Akil Baddoo’s throwing error.

Wells, meanwhile, allowed four runs in five innings en route to his first big league loss, serving up Cabrera’s 496th career dinger in the fifth. Adam Plutko surrendered No. 497 in the seventh.

“I’ve got to be better early in the game,” Wells said. “I grew up watching [Cabrera] play. I got a bit starstruck when he got into the box and the crowd was cheering. I knew my job was to stay locked in and attack him like any other hitter in the box, but it’s pretty cool to face a guy like that.”

Meanwhile, Rutschman was held hitless for just the second time in nine games at Bowie on Thursday; he’s hitting .276/.403/.513 with 16 home runs, more walks (52) than strikeouts (51) and throwing out roughly 35 percent of would-be base stealers in what is his first full season of pro ball. The switch-hitting catcher is the sport’s presumed top overall prospect with Rays infielder Wander Franco soon to graduate from that status. The main questions now are: What does he still have left to prove at Bowie? And where will he finish the year?

Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias addressed Rutschman’s future amid a host of other topics shortly after Friday’s Trade Deadline, effectively confirming the Orioles will remain deliberate with Rutschman, as they have with the grooming of all their top prospects during the current front office’s tenure.

“It's increasingly becoming a conversation of when and what to do with him next,” Elias said. “He’s certainly had a very successful season thus far, in Double-A, on both sides of the ball. It's been great to see. He is not a fully finished product or polished player. All these kids missed the whole year last year. His control of the strike zone has been outstanding, but he's doing a lot of work with Ryan Fuller, our hitting coach, and Jeff Kunkel, our catching coach there, and every day getting better and perfecting things about his swing and his consistency, his mechanics and his approach."

With a record of 35-66 and a competitive window still some time away from opening, there is simply little reason for the Orioles to rush Rutschman to the Majors this season. A bump to Triple-A Norfolk by season’s end is a possibility, but the club could just as easily keep him with fellow top prospects Grayson Rodriguez and D.L. Hall at Bowie, which they may consider a more productive environment.

“He's also working with pitching staff there and they've got a really good thing going on,” Elias said. “We do not feel like he's wasting his time or not getting anything out of Bowie, despite the success that he's had thus far.”

In the interim, Rutschman’s progress will continue to be at least partially judged from the outside in comparison to players taken with similar picks. That’s just the way these things go. To that end: All three top picks from the 2018 Draft -- Mize, Giants catcher Joey Bart and Phillies infielder Alec Bohm -- are in the Majors, the latter two for contending teams.

Only two 2019 first-rounders -- Andrew Vaughn of the White Sox and Blue Jays righty Alek Manoah -- are making Rutschman far from the exception. He’s technically behind the player drafted right behind him, the Royals' Bobby Witt Jr., who was recently promoted to Triple-A. But the Royals consider their rebuild a bit further along than the Orioles do theirs.

The Orioles aren’t yet at that stage, where top prospects are arriving or on the verge of arriving -- and the difference in the standings, while not yet stark, is plain to see. Wells is one of 11 recent Top 30 prospects (per MLB Pipeline) to see big league time this year, with Ryan Mountcastle and Austin Hays making the most significant impacts.

Mike Baumann, Yusniel Diaz and Kyle Bradish are all at Triple-A and likely to join that crop by season’s end. But all of Baltimore’s top six prospects remain at Double-A or below, and all effectively missed a year of competitive game action due to the pandemic. The O’s are especially cognizant of that fact when it comes to Rutschman, who as of Thursday night played in just 108 professional games.

“We're also mindful of the fact that the Triple-A season is going to be a long one this year,” Elias said. “There's a lot of time left on that season. It goes in October with the way that it's currently scheduled. So when it becomes the correct thing for his development, we'll make that move. It's certainly something that they were talking about organizationally and something we want to get right.”