Buck Britton knows what’s coming. Adley Rutschman knows what’s coming.
The celebrated return of Minor League Baseball should set off nightly fireworks in Bowie with Rutschman, the top prospect in the Orioles organization and rated among the best in baseball, doing most of the catching in his first full professional season. The attention is going to be intense.
It won’t worry or distract Rutschman or his manager.
“Obviously, I was never at that hype. I was always Zack’s brother coming up, so that was my hype,” Britton, a 35th-round draft pick of the Orioles in 2008, said in today’s Zoom call.
“There’s a lot of pressure on those guys, obviously. I think Adley knows that. This is a guy who works harder than anybody I’ve seen, especially somebody who’s been picked that high. A lot of times you’ve got to tell Adley to pump the brakes a little bit and slow him down. But this guy’s a worker and he’s just a natural born leader. And I’m really excited to see him go through a season.”
It starts Tuesday night with Double-A Bowie traveling to Altoona. Rutschman is moving up from low Single-A after the Orioles made him the first selection in the 2019 draft, exposed him to three affiliates and kept his development moving forward last year at the alternate camp site and fall instructional camp.
Confirming what they already knew about him and a player and person.
“I had a chance to see him at the alternate site,” Britton said. “Obviously, his ability jumps off the chart, both offensively and behind the plate, so I think it’s just a matter of kind of getting him into games, into the professional atmosphere, because he didn’t play much after being drafted and obviously he didn’t play any games per se last year. I’m excited to see this guy when the lights go on, but he’s got a chance to be a really, really exciting player for the Orioles for a long time.”
The workouts last summer at Prince George’s Stadium allowed Rutschman to catch and study pitchers already in the majors or headed to Triple-A. Valuable exposure that minimized the impact of the cancellation of the minor league season.
“He’s got a natural ability to hit, he’s got a natural ability to throw, he’s got a natural ability behind the plate. He’s super athletic. But the makeup is what stands out. I think a lot of people say that about Adley,” Britton said.
“He’s a natural leader. I can’t even explain it. He’s not very verbal, he’s not in your face, it’s just how he goes about his business, how he carries himself, how he talks to pitchers. He’s an inviting guy to talk to. Pitchers don’t shy away when he comes to talk to them because he strikes this tone that he’s there with them. He studies the game, he knows the hitters that the pitchers are facing, so they trust him. And I think that’s the most important thing that Adley does.
“The skills are on display night in and night out. A lot of it is just God-given ability, but the way he carries himself and the way he leads I think is what I think is going to carry this guy. Hopefully, he stays healthy and he’s a franchise guy for the Orioles for a long time.”
They haven’t committed to a timeline for Rutschman’s major league debut. He’s 23-years-old, with only 37 games played since leaving Oregon State University. He lost an entire season after the sport shut down. There’s no rush except to keep asking when he’s arriving in Baltimore.
“With the pandemic, I think we can have 2,200 people in the stands, so I don’t think he’s going to have the fanfare at the stadium early on,” Britton said. “Hopefully everything opens up and we can get some people in. But I don’t think he’s the type of guy who’s going to dive into social media and read all the comments people are saying about him and stuff, so I don’t think we have to worry about that.
“He knows that there’s a lot expected of him, but I think he’s up for the challenge. And like I said, this guy works his tail off and he’s not going to let the lack of hard work or the drive affect him in any way. I don’t think that he’s the type of guy who’s going to be absorbed in all that, to be honest with you.”
To do so would contradict the plus marks received from scouts pertaining to his makeup and maturity. Talent on the field is a big part of his story, but not its entirety.
“I try to keep everything in perspective and just understand how blessed I am as an individual to be able to play this game and to be able to play for fans, and friends and family who support me in a loving way. So I think that always allows me to enjoy every single day and enjoy the process and the grind of being able to play baseball and do something I love,” Rutschman said in his Zoom call.
“I think more than anything, baseball is bigger than just a game. I think people value how you treat them more than how good a baseball player you are in the long run, and that’s something I try to keep in mind every single day. I think also understanding as far as expectations go that there’s always going to be expectations and for me, I just have to be able to control what I can control, and other people’s expectations don’t really fall into that category. That’s kind of how I’ve always treated it. It seems to have worked out so far.
“I know that if I continue to set goals and expectations for myself that everything else should just fall in line.”
The skillset and work accomplished at the camps prompted the Orioles to skip their high Single-A affiliate and deliver him to Bowie.
He just wants to play again. In real games.
“It’s been a while since we’ve been playing in games and just to get back out there again, get that adrenaline going, it’s going to be exciting and I’m just stoked to be a part of it,” he said. “It’s an exciting time to be an Oriole and love the team that we’re with right now.
“It feels like a big part of my life was missing there for a little bit and it just makes me appreciate it that much more. I think the fact that you get to go out on a nightly basis and get four ABs and be able to catch someone and call a game and get your adrenaline going, that means a lot and it’s definitely going to help you grow as a baseball player, so just try to enjoy that every day and find ways to get better.”
Rutschman accumulated 154 plate appearances in 2019. The bulk of his exposure and production came with short-season Single-A Aberdeen, batting .325/.413/.481 in 20 games with seven doubles, one triple, one home run and 15 RBIs. He’s also threw five of seven would-be basestealers.
Losing the 2020 season didn’t knock him backward. Rutschman will put on the Baysox uniform for the first time tonight convinced that he’s improved.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I think that just two years of lifting, development, hitting work and work behind the plate, whether it’s at the alternate site, during the off-season or spring training, I definitely feel like I’m a better individual and a better player now than I was then. Everything that comes with getting older and just sticking with my process has me feeling a lot more confident than I did two years ago.”
A finished product? Not yet. The hype doesn’t hide areas where Rutschman feels he must continue to develop. Calling a game against actual opponents, getting more comfortable with the analytics, facing a high grade of pitching.
“I think a lot of it just comes from the daily grind and being able to get your body right on a daily basis in order to play,” he said. “A lot of things that are uncertain, I guess, in this upcoming year, but that’s the exciting part about it.”
The pressure can’t penetrate Rutschman. It’s like he’s wearing protective gear beyond the normal catching equipment.
And then there’s Britton, who bears the responsibility of being trusted with the No. 1 prospect and face of the rebuild.
“It’s always in the back of your mind,” he said. “For me, coaching third base, as well, it’s like, ‘Do I send this guy to the plate with a possible play at the plate?’ But you have to treat everybody the same. I think the second you start getting scared or timid about a guy is when you do end up getting him hurt. This kid takes care of his body, he’s super athletic and he’s just got to go out there and play.
“Guys get hurt all the time, it’s just part of the game, but this guy does everything he can to stay healthy and we’re just going to let Adley go out there and play. I think that’s the best thing for him. I think there’s a lot of pressure but there’s also a lot of joy to be a part of this kid’s journey. Hopefully this is a guy that’s a staple for us for a long time and to kind of be a part of it early on and build that relationship with him, it’s more exciting than anything else and I think I speak for everybody.
‘I always joke with the hitting coach that, ‘Hey, man, there’s a lot riding on this for you. Let’s hope Adley gets off to a hot start, because I don’t want to hear you in my office going, Oh, no. Oh, no.’ But we’re going to have fun with it. He’s a good kid, easy to be around, so we’re just going to go out there and let him play.”
“He’s a stud pitcher,” Rutschman said of Hall. “I think we’ve seen that he’s always got the stuff and as he continues to refine himself mentally and physically, being able to understand himself better, you can just see the confidence that comes with that. So I’m really excited to be able to catch him this year and be able to continue to work with him.
“His fastball is a very effective weapon that he’s going to be able to use and that’s going to allow him to open doors as far as his changeup and slider/curveball. He’s a four-pitch mix guys who’s got a lot of potential and a lot of upside, so whatever’s working for him on a given day and depending on what hitter we’re facing, he’s going to be able to use all four of those pitches effectively.”
The Orioles can close their eyes collectively as an organization and envision Hall and 2018 first-rounder Grayson Rodriguez occupying the first two spots in the rotation in whatever order while Rutschman sets the target. Putting down the fingers as the top prospects graduate to the majors and help lift the Orioles out of the doldrums.
“That’s the ultimate goal of looking to the future is hopefully you get to that point to where you get to work with those guys at the big league level,” Rutschman said. “It’s an exciting thing to think about for me and for those guys, as well. A lot of our topics of conversation are about how excited we are to continue to help the Orioles and try to do our best to get there and hopefully win a World Series together and what that would look like and all the potential ahead. So that’s something we always like to talk about and get excited for.”