Near what they hope is the nadir of a multiyear rebuilding effort, the Baltimore Orioles on Monday made a significant move to improve their long-term outlook, using the first pick in the 2019 Major League Baseball draft to select Oregon State slugger Adley Rutschman — a potentially once-in-a-generation catching prospect and franchise cornerstone.
Rutschman, this year’s Pac-12 player of the year and a favorite for the Golden Spikes Award as the nation’s top collegiate player, was considered by many to be the best position-player prospect in the draft since Bryce Harper in 2010. A 6-foot-2, 216-pound switch hitter, he batted .418 with a .580 on-base percentage and .764 slugging percentage this season, with 17 homers and 58 RBI in 56 games. On Friday, he was shown the ultimate sign of respect by an opponent — when the Cincinnati Bearcats walked him intentionally with the bases loaded.
“A switch hitter, a polished college bat,” Orioles General Manager Mike Elias said on MASN, listing some of Rutschman’s many attributes. “The approach, the … power from both sides. Really, the mental makeup is a separator for him. He brings leadership qualities. And then the athleticism and the defense. It’s a total package.”
The Orioles, in a long-term rebuild and with countless needs across their farm system, were also thought to be considering Texas high school shortstop Bobby Witt Jr., University of California first baseman Andrew Vaughn, Vanderbilt outfielder J.J. Bleday and Georgia high school shortstop C.J. Abrams with the top pick, which has a recommended slot value of $8.4 million. Rumors flew across the industry, almost right up to the moment the Orioles made the pick, that they could pull off a surprise.
But in the end, Rutschman’s unparalleled skill set, which had scouts comparing him favorably to six-time all-star catcher Joe Mauer — the most recent catcher taken first overall, by the Minnesota Twins in 2001 — proved too much for the Orioles to pass up. Rutschman, the most outstanding player of the 2018 College World Series, had been the consensus top pick in this draft since before this season even began.
“It’s tense,” Elias said of the atmosphere leading up to the pick. “The day moved quick, and everything goes kind of fast. But our scouts did a good job, and we put a ton of work and thought into this.”
With their second pick Monday, the Orioles took Alabama high school shortstop Gunnar Henderson at No. 42 to open the second round. They took Stanford outfielder Kyle Stowers with their final pick of the night at No. 72.
The 40-round draft continues Tuesday with Rounds 3 through 10 and concludes Wednesday.
Witt, the son of the former big league pitcher of the same name, went to the Kansas City Royals with the No. 2 pick. The elder Witt, who won 142 games across 16 years in the majors, is now a certified agent and will represent his son in negotiations.
Vaughn went third to the Chicago White Sox and Bleday fourth to the Miami Marlins. This draft, in fact, was the first in history in which position players were taken with the first six picks. The first pitcher taken, at No. 7, was lefty Nick Lodolo of TCU by the Cincinnati Reds.
The Orioles’ franchise-record 115-loss season in 2018 earned them the luxury of the top pick in this year’s draft, the team’s first such designation since 1989, when it took LSU pitcher Ben McDonald. McDonald, a tall, lanky right-hander, went 78-70 with a 3.91 ERA across parts of nine big league seasons but never became the dominant pitcher the Orioles envisioned.
The 2019 draft also represented perhaps the single most important decision this year for the Orioles’ new GM — Elias, a 36-year-old native of Alexandria, Va., educated at Thomas Jefferson High and Yale University and hired by the Orioles in November.
If anyone understood the stakes, it was Elias, who previously served as the Houston Astros’ scouting director. He was involved in the selection of three consecutive No. 1 overall picks with Houston — resulting in one clear victory (shortstop Carlos Correa in 2012), one clear miss (Stanford pitcher Mark Appel in 2013) and one push: In 2014, the Astros took California high school pitcher Brady Aiken first overall but failed to sign him; with the resulting compensatory pick, No. 2 overall in 2015, they took Alex Bregman, who helped the Astros win their first World Series in 2017.
Rutschman, 21, watched Monday’s proceedings in Corvallis, Ore., surrounded by friends and family, and he beamed, clapped his hands and pulled an Orioles cap over his head after his name was called by Commissioner Rob Manfred as the first overall pick.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” he said later on a conference call with reporters. “Today’s been crazy — crazy good. Just to have my friends and family around has been special. I’m very excited to get started with my career.”
Rutschman said he met with Elias once in person this year and several more times with representatives of the Orioles’ scouting department — enough interaction to get a feel for the organization’s philosophy and blueprint. Since Elias was named to replace Dan Duquette, the Orioles have moved aggressively into using video and analytics as evaluation tools.
“Seeing what they were about was huge,” Rutschman said. “They seemed very open, and I felt very fortunate to be a part of it.”
Elias said he expected Rutschman to sign “pretty quickly,” adding the Beavers’ unexpectedly quick exit in the NCAA regionals this past weekend “was kind of nice for us but unfortunate for Oregon State fans.”
“We’ll be able to initiate the [signing] process pretty quickly,” Elias said on MASN. “Early this summer, we’ll be able to get him out somewhere [to a minor league affiliate] to get some at-bats.”