Just one year into his big league career, Adley Rutschman has already ensured himself a plaque in Baltimore — in fact, it’s already marked in chalk.
It’s the spot on Eutaw Street where the 25-year-old blasted a 407-foot home run last Tuesday, shattering an 0 for 19 slump on the most emphatic of notes.
When it comes to Rutschman, the catcher the Orioles picked first overall in 2019, a resurgence always feels like it might just be around the corner. Maybe as soon as the very next swing.
As much as any one figure, Rutschman symbolizes Baltimore’s franchise rebuild. He was the organization’s first No. 1 overall pick in 30 years, the best thing to come out of the loathsome nadir of 2018 with 115 losses. From his big league introduction a little less than a year ago, the team has culled a 93-69 record. He didn’t fuel this ascension on his own, but he’s undeniably one of its most powerful accelerants.
Rutschman is one of the organization’s best triumphs in recent years. But his success has upturned a new hourglass and spurned a particular kind of anxiety. Because the uncomfortable time for any franchise trying to claw its way up from the bottom is now at hand:
Paying to keep these bright young stars around.
It’s a dicey topic for any small-market team, but perhaps especially triggering for Baltimore. The last megawatt star this organization produced, Manny Machado, got into a bitter divorce. One of the last big extensions the team signed, to Chris Davis, is still being counted against the payroll to this day, gathering interest on the regret.
General manager Mike Elias has shown a steady, competent hand getting this team to this point and deserves the benefit of the doubt, but for many fans, even entering this territory again feels haunting. Elias, understandably, didn’t want to delve too deeply into the topic with reporters last week while acknowledging extending young players is something the organization is looking at: “In terms of, like, what’s happening right now, I’m just not gonna get into it.”
He’s going to have to get into it soon. The topic is unavoidable.
Take a quick scan around baseball these days to see just how many young players are securing the bag even when they’re technically under team control (Rutschman will be arbitration-eligible in 2026 and reach free agency in 2029). Seattle’s Julio Rodriguez and Tampa Bay’s Wander Franco both signed huge, nine-figure contracts with less than a year of major league service time. The Atlanta Braves extended two of their top rookies last season, Michael Harris II and Spencer Strider, before their playoff campaign ended — as much as any organization, they’ve worked to keep their competitive core under contract.
Perhaps the Orioles are waiting for more definitive proof of concept, seeing how long they can parlay their spring success into the summer against a mashing AL East that is better than any other division in baseball. But with the second-to-lowest MLB payroll that falls conspicuously below its rivals, the more games they win, the stronger the itch becomes to make sure they secure their young stars.
Rutschman has manned the No. 2 spot in the Orioles lineup, but he might just be No. 1 in line to get an extension. He’s a very solid hitter, but where he truly shines is his discerning eye, leading the Orioles in on-base percentage and rising to top 10 in baseball. As a catcher, he’s proven to be an effective presence both managing games with the pitching staff and as a solid base-stealing deterrent.
Rutschman is not one of the future best catchers in baseball. He’s one of the best right now. “Top-five,” as Elias called him.
The Orioles, who are paying him $734,000 this season, can extend him, too. Right now.
There is a reason, though, that teams dole out big deals to outfielders while catchers historically have a harder time breaking through the glass ceiling of baseball’s skyrocketing salaries. More than any other position, you suffer wear and tear behind the plate. For the past few decades, catchers have been analogous to running backs in the NFL: a grist mill where teams might use a platoon rather than settle on one franchise player at the position. The Orioles saw some of this with Matt Wieters, who was heralded with similar fanfare as Rutschman, had a very solid Baltimore tenure, but was out of baseball by 34.
That is undoubtedly going to be a consideration for the front office, especially given Rutschman’s dedication to playing as much as possible: He’s played nearly 80% of his games as a catcher (as opposed to a DH). He’s gotten better this season as a right-handed batter, and the next step seems to be consistent power — if he starts launching 25 or more homers a season, that could be the factor that elevates him into a true franchise player. That might be the difference between the six-year, $73 million deal that Atlanta’s Sean Murphy signed in December, or the five-year, $115 million contract of Philadelphia’s J.T. Realmuto that is the current big-money watermark for catchers.
But even beyond manufacturing runs, Rutschman has already started producing something else: hope. And Baltimore sure as hell needed that.
A quick scan of Camden Yards in the last week of home games turns up names from a much more fabled history. People are wearing Robinson and Ripken jerseys, or even players from the more recent past: Jones, Hardy, Wieters and, yes, even Machado. For a long time, O’s fans have had to wean themselves on past glories amid a dreadful on-field product.
But these days, the eye test turns up a clear result: The most popular jersey of a current player is Rutschman, turning up in the stands in increasing clusters as even fans jaded by the misery of rebuilding have started trickling back to the ballpark.
Something to cheer for feels good. There’s a lot more to cheer for lately, between the one-run nail-biting wins, the dominating bullpen run of Yennier Cano, and the surging play of Cedric Mullins, Anthony Santander and other veterans who withstood the club’s darkest days. The feel-good vibes of the team are showering down with the homer hose, or its recent cousin, the Bird Bath.
Keeping a good thing going might be the most challenging task in team-building. For the longest time, Rutschman represented the promise of a brighter future. In a way, even though the Orioles are winning, he still represents what might be for this franchise.
The Orioles just have to keep him around — to see what else they might one day cast in bronze.