Can Recent Draft Picks Provide a Roadmap for Getting Adley Rutschman to the Majors?

This article was originally scheduled to run around August 23, 2019 on Baltimore Sports and Life. It never did due to a similar article being published a couple of months earlier. I am posting it here so it can be included in my collection of writings.

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Recently, Zach Spedden and I discussed some post-draft, second half questions dealing with the Orioles minor league system. One of those questions involved estimating when Adley Rutschman may find himself in the big leagues. Admittedly, I hypothesized that Rutschman may find himself in the big leagues by the end of the 2021 season, assuming the Orioles don’t participate in any service time shenanigans (Zach guessed a possible 2020 late season call up). Based on what I think their window to contend is going to be (hint: it’s not anytime soon in my opinion), they’d probably benefit from some service time manipulation, though I believe they should bring him up when he’s ready.

With that in mind, I wanted to look and see how other recent top college draft picks have progressed through the minor leagues after being drafted. I looked at college position players drafted somewhere between picks 1 and 5 over the previous 5 drafts, hoping that they may provide some insight on Rutschman’s journey through the minors. Obviously, how well Rutschman performs will ultimately determine his timeline, though the Orioles don’t really have any reason to rush. Just as a note, I am not including Brendan McKay, since it appears that the Rays are having him focus on primarily on pitching in the majors, at least in the short term.

Kyle Schwarber (C) – 2014 Round 1, Pick 4

Obviously Swcharber is not a catcher anymore, and there didn’t seem to be many people who thought he was going to remain a catcher at the time he was drafted. The Cubs gave it a go for a little bit, but eventually, Schwarber was destined for the outfield (and based on his defensive statistics, he’s eventually destined for a DH role when he leaves the NL). He was selected 4th overall, and he RAKED at every level on his way to the big leagues. After being drafted, he spent the 2014 season road-tripping through the Cubs single-A affiliates. He played the 2015 season in AA until about mid-June, then spent a couple weeks in AAA before being called up to the big leagues.

Dansby Swanson (SS) –2015 Round 1, Pick 1

Swanson spent his entire draft year season in Low-A, though it was only 99 plate appearances. He started the following year in High-A, quickly moved up to AA, and skipped AAA on his way to finishing the year out with 145 major league plate appearances.

Alex Bregman (SS) –2015 Round 1, Pick 2

Bregman took a very similar path as Schwarber, as he spent his first season after getting drafted in Single-A (Schwarber started in Low-A, though he was only there for 24 plate appearances). By the end of the year following the one that he was drafted in, Bregman also found himself playing in the big leagues at a new position, although his change in position was based more on Houston’s roster needs rather than his ability to play SS.

Nick Senzel (3B) –2016 Round 1, Pick 2

Senzel took a little longer than his counterparts on this list so far, but cracked the major league roster earlier this year. Not counting his 41 plate appearances in Rookie Ball (and his brief stint in AAA to start this season), he’s pretty much hit extremely well at every level he’s played. He probably would have made the big leagues sooner if not for the finger injury that cut his 2018 season short.

Corey Ray (OF) –2016 Round 1, Pick 5

Ray is the first player in this group to not have made the majors yet, and it doesn’t look like he will anytime soon based on recent performance. Ray spent his draft year between the A and High-A levels, posting unimpressive numbers in both spots. He repeated High-A in 2017 and spent the entire season there. Despite the unimpressive performance in High-A, Ray performed much better in AA the following year. While occasionally hitting well in the minors, Ray has had serious swing and miss issues, causing some concern, even during his productive season in AA. He’s currently having an extremely rough season in AAA, which has been interrupted due to a finger injury earlier in the year.

Joey Bart (C) –2018 Round 1, Pick 2

Looking at draft position and field position, Bart is obviously the most obvious comp to Rutschman. And just like Bart, Rutschman began his pro career in the Rookie League after being drafted, for a handful of plate appearances, before being called up to Low-A. This year Bart went straight to High-A, and was recently called up to AA. He’s struggled there so far, but it’s a pretty small sample size.

Alec Bohm (3B) – 2018 Round 1, Pick 3

Bohm has made a lot of minor league stops since being drafted, playing 6 different levels in essentially what amounts to one full season. His disappointing 2018 season is probably forgotten after hitting very well at 3 different levels in 2019. Even though the Scott Kingery is doing an admirable job manning 3B lately, the Phillies haven’t had great production from that position in 2019, so Bohm could see the major leagues by the end of the season, with his defense likely being the only thing that holds him back.

Nick Madrigal (SS) – 2018 Round 1, Pick 3

Similar to Bohm, Madrigal has seemingly played all over the White Sox farm system and appears to be ready for a major league call up by the end of the year, having already reached AAA in only his second pro season. While the Phillies may bring Bohm up to help with their playoff push, Madrigal’s promotion may depend on how eager the White Sox are to start his service time clock.

Jonathan India (3B) – 2018 Round 1, Pick 5

I’m sure you can start to see a pattern here. India is in a similar situation as Madrigal, where he could see some time in the majors at the end of this year, however the Reds may want to wait on starting his major league service clock.

So where does this leave Rutschman? Here’s what he’s done so far in his pro career:

He’s taken a very similar path so far as most of the other top college draft picks. I suspect he’ll end the season at Delmarva, regardless of how he performs, and will likely start the 2020 season in Frederick, unless he looks completely overmatched. Based on the track record of other recent top 5 college draftees, it looks like Zach’s estimate of a MLB arrival for Rutschman looks a bit better than mine, assuming there are no injuries and there are no service time manipulations, although either of those could end up being factors. Additionally, Joey Bart is the only other catcher in this group, which does make it difficult to compare, since catching comes with a unique set of development challenges. Just for fun, the last 3 catchers taken in the top 5 picks of the draft were Mike Zunino (2012, Pick 3), Tony Sanchez (2009, Pick 4), and Buster Posey (2008, Pick 5). Zunino and Posey each got a taste of the majors the year after they were drafted, while Sanchez didn’t appear until 2013. Sanchez never really had any success in the major leagues, but Zunino and (especially) Posey have been productive major leaguers (though Zunino was sent down to the minors a couple of times before sticking in the major leagues).

It’s impossible to know for sure when Adley Rutschman will make his debut with Baltimore, but based on recent top college draftees, Orioles fans could see him as soon as the end of the 2020 season. Again, ultimately, it will be his performance that determines his progress, but his development during this first year has certainly put him on that track to do so.

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