It’s not often that the first overall pick in the MLB draft is a foregone conclusion. Righthander Casey Mize eventually emerged as a slam dunk No. 1 pick last spring, but there was some doubt about the selection as late as the morning of the draft. Mize also wasn’t the top overall pick heading into the spring — fellow SEC righthander Brady Singer was originally the Tigers’ projected pick. Still, Mize dominated most draft prospect lists that spring in a way we had not seen since Gerrit Cole was an easy top overall selection for the Pittsburgh Pirates way back in 2010.
This year, the pick is a little more obvious. Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman has been The Guy in this year’s class ever since the previous draft ended, and has been linked to the Baltimore Orioles ever since it became clear they would land the top overall pick in 2019. These projections have not wavered since then; Rutschman has been the projected No. 1 pick in just about every mock draft out there this spring, including Baseball America’s latest mock, which was released on Friday.
Rutschman’s performance has a lot to do with that. The 21-year-old backstop is hitting a ridiculous .429/.576/.800 this season, with 14 home runs and 51 RBI for the Beavers. He is on the midseason watch list for the Golden Spikes Award (college baseball’s Heisman trophy), and should take home the award unless he completely falls off a cliff. The same can probably be said for his draft position, too. Baltimore did well with the last catcher they drafted with a top-five pick, and don’t appear that they will shy away from Rutschman for any reason.
So why are we writing about him? Because stranger things have happened on draft day — Baltimore is very strange about player medicals, after all — and there’s always a chance Rutschman could drop in the rankings over the next month.
School: Oregon State
Draft day age: 21
MLB Pipeline draft prospect rank: 1
Previously drafted: 2016, 40th round
MLB Pipeline Scouting Grades: C Adley Rutschman
Where do we start? Rutschman is a well-rounded catcher who defends and throws well, and hits for average and power. He is a switch hitter, and one with a long track record in the college game. He has hit above .400 in both of the past two seasons, and was named the Most Outstanding Player at the 2018 College World Series after leading Oregon State to the national title. He is getting on base at a near-60 percent clip, and has nearly twice as many walks as strikeouts. The numbers are just bonkers.
In fact, Rutschman’s ability to produce the way he has while dealing with the pressure of being the potential No. 1 overall pick has impressed evaluators at MLB Pipeline, who rank him as the top prospect in this year’s draft class.
Sometimes a player who enters his Draft season as the best player in the class struggles with the pressure and the spotlight. Then there are players like Rutschman, who has somehow managed to surpass expectations during his junior season at Oregon State after helping the Beavers win the College World Series and earning CWS Most Outstanding Player honors in the process. He capped things off by being a member of USA Baseball’s National Collegiate Team over the summer and has kept on rolling on both sides of the ball this spring.
Pipeline gave Rutschman plus grades in each of the four tools that matter for catchers. He hits for a high average from both sides of the plate, and has shown remarkable plate discipline in college. He has more walks than strikeouts in his three-year career at Oregon State, and has walked at a 17 percent clip. FanGraphs praised Rutschman’s “tremendous feel for contact” and noted that he would have been their No. 17 overall prospect this spring if he were in pro ball.
ESPN’s Keith Law went into more detail about Rutschman’s swings from both sides of the plate after scouting him in person earlier this spring.
His left-handed swing is much better and looks more natural, in large part because he repeats it so well, with good hip rotation and a strong back side. He turns his front foot over through every swing, though -- a “soft front side” -- which pulls him open through contact and can make a hitter pull pitches foul that one who stays more closed would keep fair. His right-handed swing has more effort to it and his back side collapses, which will pose a problem for contact going forward, although since he’ll only bat right-handed infrequently this isn’t as much of a concern.
Defensively, Rutschman is as sound as they come. He has a plus arm and is a good blocker and receiver. He may not be quite the defender that Baylor backstop Shea Langeliers is, but draws plus grades across the board for his abilities.
Our friends at The Good Phight have more on Rutschman’s defensive abilities.
He’s already a good blocker, but he does stab a bit as a receiver, though he doesn’t let the glove travel after receiving, so he could develop into a very good pitch framer with a little more pro coaching and work. He is athletic, having played QB in High School and been the OSU Kickoff specialist his Freshman season, along with also Pitching in High School (touching 94 as a Senior). His overall athleticism does suggest he can develop further behind the dish.
While this is a bat major league managers will want to keep in the lineup, Rutschman will also be an asset defensively. Don’t expect him to move anywhere else, especially if and when he lands with an American League team who can use him as a DH when he needs a day off from behind the plate.
Umm... he’s slow?
Rutschman runs like a catcher, which isn’t really much of a knock at all. Players like him aren’t expected to be fleet of foot, and Rutschman’s below-average speed is just that. He’s not a plodder, with Pipeline saying “he’s even a better runner than some give him credit for.” It’s not surprising to hear that Rutschman’s athleticism translates from behind the plate to the basepaths, but don’t expect him to swipe many bases at the professional level.
The other potential knock is the late arrival of Rutschman’s in-game power. He hit nine home runs in 67 games with the Beavers last year, and had just two in 209 at-bats during his freshman season. MLB Pipeline notes that Rutschman had “been more of a gap-to-gap doubles hitter” in previous years, but has only just grown into hitting the ball over the fence. I’m always of the mind that I’d like to see a hitter prove they can maintain that power over multiple seasons, so there’s a bit of uncertainty here, but Rutschman seems like as safe a bet as any to keep hitting for more power at the pro level.
Draft position: first overall, unless something happens
This year’s draft class is a bit strange. While most seasons bring nothing but uncertainty and chaos to the draft day proceedings, the top four or five picks already appear locked in. Rutschman will likely go first overall, followed by shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. and Cal first baseman Andrew Vaughn. The next couple picks are a little more uncertain, but many sites feel as if they can narrow the Marlins’ and Tigers’ wish lists down to just a few names. This level of predictability doesn’t happen often in the MLB draft.
That certainty starts with Rutschman. It would be a huge shock at this point if he did not go first overall, and there would actually be some cause for concern if he dropped all the way to the Tigers at No. 5. Still, it’s not out of the question, especially in the MLB draft.