The Orioles clubhouse now boasts the reigning AL Rookie of the Year and a former Cy Young Award winner. Another No. 1 overall prospect waits in the wings in Norfolk.

With his teammates taking some of the space on the marquee, it might feel at times that Adley Rutschman’s star doesn’t shine quite so bright. Don’t believe it.

The rising tide of talent in Baltimore means the Oregon native has been able to fade into the background more than in spring trainings past. There is so much focus on the younger prospects in the pipeline — the potential Rutschman used to represent.

All he has done is bash three homers in 35 at-bats this spring with a .381 on-base percentage. Ho-hum, right?

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The returning All-Star catcher may not always seem at the forefront of what makes Baltimore so exciting, but make no mistake — the 26-year-old still might be the most important Oriole in 2024, and for the foreseeable future for more reasons than you might think.

In ESPN’s ranking of the top 100 players in Major League Baseball, 22-year-old shortstop Gunnar Henderson (No. 37) and 29-year-old starting pitcher Corbin Burnes (No. 21) got top-40 nods. They both play headliner positions in the league, the ones that end up getting the biggest contracts.

But neither was the top Oriole on ESPN’s list. Rutschman ranked at No. 11, also higher than any catcher.

It’s not hard to explain Rutschman’s value, especially to an Orioles fan. There aren’t many top-drawer catchers who can manage pitchers well while also bringing discipline and power from both sides of the plate. He led the Orioles in plate appearances (687) despite playing the sport’s most physically taxing position — no other catcher had more than 611.

Baltimore Orioles relief pitcher DL Hall (24) celebrates with catcher Adley Rutschman after allowing no runs in the eleventh inning of a game against the Tampa Bay Rays on Sept. 17, 2023. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

In 2022, Rutschman’s most glaring weakness was how he hit left-handers from the right side of the plate. In 2023, he flipped the script to the point where he was a stronger righty (.481 slugging) than lefty (.419) — he memorably showcased this switch-hitting power in an all-too-brief Home Run Derby appearance.

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Then again, the beauty of the Orioles’ backstop is he doesn’t typically draw attention to himself. He just works.

He doesn’t have the flair of Henderson’s athleticism, or the charisma of, say, Yennier Cano as he stares down the batter he just struck out. He simply performs at a consistent level: Apart from a June slump last season, Rutschman’s production at the plate last season was remarkably steady.

Maybe Rutschman is more comfortable this way, where he’s one of several faces of the franchise instead of a clear leading man. But there’s one way this season that Rutschman — and the Orioles — can make a splash this season.

That’s right. A long-term extension.

I wrote a similar sentiment last season, one that is riding on the minds of a lot of Orioles fans who want the spoils of the rebuild to stick around for a long time.

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Since then, Rutschman became an All-Star and earned a Silver Slugger while catching for a pitching staff that had the seventh-best earned run average in the league. He bumped up his value and the price is probably only going up from here in his last season before he’s eligible for arbitration. Either way, next year he’ll be making real money.

The Orioles have yet to ink any of their young stars to long-term deals, still remaining budget-conscious while they’re under team control. But Rutschman is uniquely positioned to be the first one signed if the front office wants to change course under new owner David Rubenstein.

At 26, he’s older than some of his high-profile teammates in a position that can wear players down over time, so a free agency deal in 2027 may not be as much of a cash-in as getting an extension done now.

Henderson and Jackson Holliday are younger and offer a ton of upside, but they’re Scott Boras clients. Traditionally, Boras has advised clients to test free agency, putting the Orioles on the clock (Henderson can reach free agency in 2028, Holliday in 2030 on his current track).

Three years of team control for Rutschman may seem like a long time, but baseball is trending toward signing younger players for longer. His fellow 2019 draftees Corbin Carroll (8 years, $111 million guaranteed) and Bobby Witt Jr. (11 years, $288.7 million guaranteed) got massive contracts in the last year. The Athletic recently projected that a Rutschman extension could be worth $156 million over eight years, which would make him one of the highest-paid catchers in baseball.

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He would surely deserve it, given how he’s produced and contributed since becoming a big-leaguer. But most importantly, it would signal a shift in the Orioles’ approach to star players.

The cynicism around how the club has handled Holliday — who hit .311 this spring and was still sent back down to the minors — reflects the club’s longstanding difficulties keeping a homegrown star. Instead, the Orioles have played their prospects conservatively, inciting speculation that that they are manipulating service time to keep promising players under team control longer (even though in Holliday’s case, that motivation is slightly dubious).

Keeping Rutschman with a long-term extension could help show others that the Orioles are serious about committing to a team that won 101 games last season. It would of course fire up the fanbase, which has embraced Adley since he showed up from Oregon State already wearing orange. But it could be a first domino in aggressive moves to keep the team intact, rather than simply playing out the arbitration process and hoping to win a World Series in the next three years.

I wrote last May that Rutschman was the face of the rebuild. That’s no longer strictly true, given the teammates that have risen alongside him. But he can be the face of the Orioles’ strategy for a long-term winner — a franchise that locks up its All-Stars instead of trading them before they become free agents.

Sure, Rutschman may prefer to blend in. But standing out for getting paid might be the best kind of limelight there is.

Kyle joined The Baltimore Banner in 2023 as a sports columnist. He previously covered the L.A. Lakers for The Orange County Register and myriad sports at The Salt Lake Tribune. He’s a Mt. Hebron High and University of Maryland alum.

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