O's trio forming super-battery in Minors

July 6th, 2021

BOWIE, Md. -- By now, Adley Rutschman is used to Grayson Rodriguez wearing many hats -- future ace, top pitching prospect, celebrated smack-talker -- but he didn’t expect to see him in a mask. Especially not his mask, or any of his gear, for that matter. Yet there Rodriguez was, all 6-foot-5 of him, plopped onto a folding chair in front of Rutschman’s locker, donning the tools of ignorance for comedic effect: two different shin guards strapped to his legs, a bright orange chest protector, Rutschman’s game-worn glove on his left hand and his square jaw stuffed into Rutschman’s Independence Day-themed mask.

“Everybody walked in and started laughing, and Adley was just in shock,” Rodriguez said. “He was speechless. He just kind of stared at us with this grin on his face. Then afterwards, he said he didn’t know what to say.”

For this particular prank, Rodriguez was the brains. D.L. Hall, the O’s top left-handed pitching prospect, was the publicist, tweeting the photo out to thousands. Rutschman was the butt. But the roles often swap, sending the playful vibes back and forth between the trio in all directions.

“They will try on my gear, do anything they want, really,” Rutschman said. “Grayson messes with my locker all the time. He’ll leave me notes and stickers, and I’ll toss it back at him, or write a note on a ball or something and leave it in his locker.”

“99 percent of the time, it’s Grayson starting something with one of us,” said Hall. “Most of the time, he’s got something to say because he loves for us to go at it. But me and Adley get in our fair share as well.”

Welcome to the Double-A Bowie Baysox clubhouse, where Rutschman, Rodriguez and Hall are developing not only into three of the best prospects in baseball, but into best friends at the same time. As the big league team slogs through another difficult season in Baltimore, the nest egg of the Orioles' rebuild is incubating a mere 40-minute drive south, where they are turning heads, taking names and preparing together for their collective big league moment.

“That group, they might just become roommates at some point,” pitching coach Justin Ramsey said.

They are all products of different Drafts and geographical points: Rutschman the top overall pick in 2019 out of Oregon State, Rodriguez the high school first-rounder out of east Texas in 2018 and Hall selected from the Georgia prep ranks in the first round in 2017. Rodriguez’s late May promotion to Bowie marked the beginning of their second tour together, after they first bonded at the Orioles alternate site in 2020. That shared history makes this summer feel like a sequel, even though everyone else views it as a prequel.

“We’re very, very close,” Rutschman said. “We’re not even close to the relationship that we have now without [the alternate site].”

Nowhere else in the Minors is this much top-level talent meshing so well. Now with Rays shortstop Wander Franco in the Majors, the path is clear for Rutschman to assume the title of baseball’s top overall prospect in the near future. Of the four starting pitchers ranked ahead of Rodriguez (No. 19 overall) by MLB Pipeline, three have already reached the Majors in some capacity. Which means the Orioles will soon be able to make the case that they have the best position player and best pitching prospect in all of baseball (per Baseball America, they already do). Throw in Hall (No. 53 overall), and what they have is, unquestionably, the Minor Leagues’ super-battery down at Double-A.

“They bring a ton of excitement, a ton of energy,” said Baysox manager Buck Britton. “And every one of them is so different.”

Rodriguez is cut from the classic big Texas righty archetype: gregarious off the mound and fearless on it, with a fastball that flirts with triple digits, three distinct offspeed pitches, an appetite for the big moment and an unflappable intensity he can switch on and off. He stands at attention for interviews, swallows your hand when he shakes it and amps up his dugout even before his own starts (said Britton: “The first day we had him, he’s screaming … and then he gets out to the mound and it's like he’s on the job”).

“Grayson is loud,” said Hall, who is currently sidelined with a minor elbow injury. “Super outgoing. He doesn't meet a stranger. And he's the biggest [crap] talker. But he’s not very good at it. He means no harm, and he loves laughing at his own jokes.”

Said Rodriguez: “I try to get everybody fired up.”

Hall is an equally talkative, if flashier, character: a long-haired left-hander with 17 tattoos, a sizable shoe collection, an easygoing Georgia drawl and storytelling instincts. What do they have in common? Triple-digit fastballs, a love of big trucks and huge upside: Hall is punching out 15.9 hitters per nine at Bowie this season, while Rodriguez is striking out 13.4 per nine with a 1.70 ERA (across two levels).

“People call it a big brother, little brother kind of thing,” Ramsey said. “They both know where they’re trying to go and that they’re going to get there, and they really do, in a very healthy way, push each other.”

Together, they are the best, latest hope for an organization with a historical reputation but spotty modern track record of developing pitching. The Orioles have drafted and developed only two All-Star starting pitchers in the last three decades: Mike Mussina and John Means. In the meantime, they’ve seen numerous prospects either bust (Adam Loewen, Brian Matusz, Matt Hobgood) or blossom elsewhere (Jake Arrieta, Kevin Gausman). They are pinning their hopes on this crop breaking the trend.

“These guys are special talents,” Britton said. “There is a little bit of a rivalry there, but it's friendly. They just want to one-up each other. They pull for each other. D.L. is on the top step watching Grayson, and Grayson is doing the same. They want each other to have success, but they're also looking to one-up each other. And I think that's, that's awesome.”

Then there is the more reserved Rutschman, who is second among all Orioles Minor Leaguers in homers and drawing rave reviews for his rapport with both pitchers behind the plate. Hall calls him “goofy.” Rodriguez says “laid-back” and “relaxed,” then when pressed, “goofy at times.” Britton calls him “a little kid at heart, with just a lot of athletic ability.” Just consider him the glue. The Orioles are hoping it sticks well past this summer, and for years to come.

“It’s seamless to work with him,” Rodriguez said. “He’s a competitor on the field and somebody you want to hang out with off it.”