Image credit: Gunnar Henderson Adley Rutschman (Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images)
One day, the Orioles will probably look back at the 2019 draft as a turning point.
Baltimore held the No. 1 overall pick in one of those rare years with an obvious No. 1 talent.
Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman was regarded as the best draft prospect since Bryce Harper nine years earlier. Rutschman was the College Player of the Year that season. He was a national champion the year before and was sure to be a franchise catcher in the future.
That future is now.
Rutschman entered the 2022 season ranked as the No. 1 prospect in baseball. A triceps injury set him back in spring training, but when he got back on the field in late April, it didn’t take long for him to matriculate.
Rutschman made his MLB debut on May 21 and immediately impacted the Orioles’ fortunes. Baltimore played at a near 90-win pace with the 24-year-old rookie catcher anchoring the lineup and leading the pitching staff.
Rutschman led the Orioles in wins above replacement, and his WAR total ranked among the highest ever for a rookie catcher in the expansion era, appearing on the same list as Mike Piazza, Carlton Fisk, Thurman Munson, Johnny Bench and Buster Posey.
Just as Rutschman was settling into a routine in Baltimore, a new Orioles prospect was racing toward the top of the Top 100.
Gunnar Henderson ranked as the No. 30 prospect for the 2019 draft, but the Alabama high school shortstop slipped out of the first round in a class loaded with premium prep talent that included Bobby Witt Jr., Riley Greene, CJ Abrams, Brett Baty and Corbin Carroll.
The Orioles kept in touch with Henderson and were able to make the bonus money work at the top of the second round with the 42nd overall pick. The arrangement worked out perfectly for both sides, and today Orioles head of baseball operations Mike Elias describes Henderson as a “flagship” development for the organization.
Henderson gained valuable experience at the Orioles’ alternate training site during the canceled 2020 season and was ready for Class A in 2021, when he ranked as a top prospect in both the Carolina and South Atlantic leagues.
That set the stage for 2022. Henderson improved in every facet—hitting, power, speed, discipline, contact—and showed above-average to plus tools across the board as he mastered Double-A and then Triple-A in what would ultimately be a Minor League Player of the Year season.
Henderson moved to the No. 1 position on the Top 100 Prospects ranking in early August, at the same point in the season at which Rutschman was beginning to hit his stride in MLB. Baltimore called up Henderson on Aug. 31, and it didn’t take him long to become an integral piece of the Orioles’ lineup while starting games at third base, shortstop and second base.
Henderson gained valuable MLB experience this summer but retains his eligibility for the Rookie of the Year award in 2023, when he will enter the season as the favorite to rank as the No. 1 prospect in baseball.
Now, the Orioles’ future looks bright—and an American League wild card well within reach next season—thanks in large part to Rutschman and Henderson, the two players who kicked off Baltimore’s 2019 draft and would develop into No. 1 prospects in baseball.
While Rutschman and Henderson are the highlights, they aren’t alone in the Orioles’ 2019 draft class.
Supplemental second-rounder Kyle Stowers, drafted out of Stanford, had one of the top seasons by a Triple-A outfielder and made his MLB debut. Power is his calling card.
Fourth-rounder Joey Ortiz, drafted out of New Mexico State, is positioned to help in Baltimore next season after taking off in the second half of 2022 at Double-A and Triple-A. The skilled defensive shortstop hit .352/.416/.610 from July 1 to the end of the season and led the minor leagues with 101 hits, 68 runs and 175 total bases in that time. His 1.026 OPS ranked seventh best.
In fact, the core of the Triple-A Norfolk lineup should make its way to Baltimore in 2023. At the end of the season, the Tides’ top four consisted exclusively of top prospects onboarded during Elias’ tenure: Connor Norby at second base, Jordan Westburg at third base, Ortiz at shortstop and 2021 first-rounder Colton Cowser in center field.
The ace of the Norfolk staff was 2018 first-rounder Grayson Rodriguez, a holdover from the previous front office regime. Rodriguez is one of the top pitching prospects in baseball and he looked sharp in September, despite missing most of June, July and August with a lat strain.
For the Orioles organization to have come this far so quickly is a testament to Elias and his front office.
Elias inherited an organization in disarray when he took over after the 2018 season. His predecessor Dan Duquette had traded core players Manny Machado, Jonathan Schoop, Kevin Gausman and Zack Britton just months earlier. The trades yielded little of long-term consequence, with only Dean Kremer and Dillon Tate distinguishing themselves as contributors in the four years since.
The 2018 Orioles lost 115 games and the franchise was just beginning to enter its downturn. From 2017 to 2021, Baltimore had a .357 winning percentage, a five-year success rate that would embarrass an expansion team.
Worse, it wasn’t clear if any players from that 2018 squad would be around for the next Orioles playoff team. Cedric Mullins and Anthony Santander were just getting their feet wet and are the most obvious candidates to appear in a future Baltimore postseason game.
But there was hope on the farm. The Orioles had drafted Rodriguez 11th overall out of a Texas high school in 2018, and prospects like Ryan Mountcastle, Austin Hays and DL Hall were working their way toward Baltimore.
The outlook is much clearer in Baltimore today, thanks to the organization’s proficiency in the draft and player development, plus the overall sound decision-making of the Elias front office.