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The Case For No. 1: Adley Rutschman

In putting together the Baseball America 2022 Top 100 Prospects, a clear top three prospects emerged in Orioles catcher Adley Rutschman, Royals shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. and Mariners outfielder Julio Rodriguez. As part of the process of gathering feedback for the Top 100, Baseball America surveyed nearly two dozen front office executives and scouting officials across the game on who the No. 1 prospect should be. Rutschman, Witt Jr. and Rodriguez each received multiple votes, and most officials said all three were worthy candidates with very little separation between them. 

As part of the lead up to Wednesday's release of the 2022 Top 100 Prospects, Baseball America is presenting the case for all three players to be No. 1. Below is the case for Rutschman. 

Since 2004, no catcher has hit at least .280 with 30 home runs in a season. Jorge Posada was the last to do it when he hit .281 with 30 home runs in 2003. The only other catcher to do it this millennium was Mike Piazza, who did it three years in a row from 2000-02.

If all goes according to plan, Adley Rutschman will be the one to end that drought.

Rutschman, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 draft, made his long-awaited full-season debut in 2021 and did not disappoint. The 23-year-old Orioles prospect hit .285/.397/.502 with 23 home runs, 75 RBIs, 79 walks and 90 strikeouts between Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk and received universal praise for his defense and on-field leadership.

That performance would be impressive for any player. The fact it came from a switch-hitting catcher elevates it from impressive to special.

“You don’t have guys who can play the position like he can,” one National League pro scouting director said. “Controls the zone, has impact potential with the bat, has a chance to be a well above-average catcher. It’s just so rare.”

In an era of declining offensive production from catchers, Rutschman projects to be an outlier.

Catchers combined to hit .228 in the major leagues last season, the lowest batting average for the position since 1918. They struck out in more than a quarter of their plate appearances, the only position group to reach that threshold even in an era of increased strikeout rates.

In short, teams today don’t get the production from their catchers that Rutschman projects to give to the Orioles. He is a better hitter from the right side (.350, 1.060 OPS) than the left side (.256, .825) but is plenty dangerous from both. Observers freely describe his command of the strike zone as “elite”, and his feel for contact earns consensus plus grades.

If everything comes together, he has the ability to hit for power and average like no other catcher has in nearly two decades.

“He can be the best catcher in baseball and one of the best players in baseball,” one longtime American League pro scouting director said. “.280 with 30 bombs is perfectly reasonable. That type of production. He’s a well-rounded offensive player, he’s going to get on base, he’s going to hit for power, he’s going to make contact. He’s a very, very good offensive player at the hardest position in baseball.”

Rutschman’s offense draws the loudest raves, in part because there is nothing subtle about his explosive power and elite on-base skills. His defense, however, is hardly a weak point.

Rutschman is a consensus plus defender behind the plate with quiet movements, solid framing skills and excellent blocking and throwing abilities. As important as his physical attributes, his leadership and steady presence fit what every team looks for in a catcher.

“He reminds me of a young (Buster) Posey a lot in the way that he carries himself,” one opposing scout said. “Very quiet, very respectful, tremendous leadership that shows on the field. Plays hard. I like the way he calls the game, I like how he takes charge behind the dish … He’s going to be a franchise player.”

Bobby Witt Jr. (Photo By Kyle Rivas Getty Images)

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There is little doubt about Rutschman’s ability on either side of the ball. The only question is how his body will hold up against the rigors of catching.

It was only 2009 when another Orioles switch-hitting catcher ranked as the No. 1 prospect in baseball. Matt Wieters was considered an above-average hitter with above-average power and put up even gaudier numbers in the minor leagues than Rutschman. He went on to a solid 12-year major league career that included four all-star selections, but never quite lived up to the expectations held for him as the top overall prospect in the game.

The grind of catching took a toll. Wieters caught 618 of the first 657 games of his career. He then missed most of the 2014-15 seasons with injuries and played only two more full seasons the rest of his career.

“There is always risk in catchers,” another AL pro scouting director said. “Health, and then if the (automated ball-strike system) comes in, does that reduce the overall value?”

Even so, when it comes to pure talent, few players in baseball combine Rutschman’s offensive potential with his defensive attributes at a premium position. As long as he stays healthy, he has a chance to be one of baseball's elite young players.

“There’s nothing he doesn’t do,” an NL assistant general manager said. “Plus defender now and in the future. Doesn’t strike out, hits for power. Line them up, the scouting reports, the statistical weights. Doesn’t matter. He’s way above the rest.”

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