Much of Adley Rutschman’s Orioles tenure has, in some way, involved being first. He became Mike Elias’ first draftee as Baltimore’s executive vice president and general manager when he was selected with the first pick of 2019′s first round, then developed into a player ranked first among baseball’s top prospects.
But even in finishing second to Seattle Mariners outfielder Julio Rodríguez in American League Rookie of the Year voting, Rutschman managed another first. By virtue of placing in the top two, the Orioles’ 24-year-old catcher will be credited with a full year of major league service time despite coming weeks short of the requirements for one, becoming the first player to have his career timeline altered thanks to the league’s new collective bargaining agreement. Rutschman is now due to reach free agency after the 2027 season, rather than 2028. He appeared on 28 of 30 ballots, receiving the lone first-place vote that did not go to Rodríguez, 18 votes for second place and nine for third.
During CBA negotiations amid the MLB-enforced lockout, the Major League Baseball Players Association sought to curb service time manipulation, where teams delay calling up top prospects to ensure they finish just short of the requisite 172 days to earn a year of service, thus delaying when those players reach free agency and the salary increases of the arbitration system. The agreed-upon solution was to award well-regarded players who finish in the top two of each league’s Rookie of the Year voting, performed by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, with a full year of service if they didn’t spend enough time in the majors to receive one, while top prospects who begin the year in the majors can earn their organizations extra draft picks by performing well in award voting early in their careers.
Rutschman ended 2022 with 138 days of service time, not reaching the majors until May 21 because of a right tricep strain suffered just as major league spring training began out of the lockout. After a slow start, both he and the Orioles took off. Rutschman hit .254 with 13 home runs and an .806 OPS, while his 35 doubles broke Cal Ripken Jr.’s franchise rookie record. Despite his late arrival, his 5.3 wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs, led the Orioles and AL catchers and were tied for the most among rookies with Rodríguez, who was the third rookie to record 25 home runs and 25 steals in a season. Baltimore went 63-50 in games Rutschman played, going 20-29 otherwise, with that margin earning him Most Valuable Oriole honors.
On top of the change to Rutschman’s proximity to free agency — which assumes he is not demoted to the minors in that time — the additional service time also positions him to first reach arbitration after 2024. Those benchmarks, of course, could become moot if the Orioles and Rutschman come to a long-term contract agreement, as the Mariners have done with Rodríguez and the Atlanta Braves did with outfielder Michael Harris II and right-hander Spencer Strider, the expected top two finishers in National League voting. But Monday’s announcement of the voting results provides clarity on his career timeline that previously would have been unavailable in any negotiations.
While Rutschman’s injury prevented him from becoming Baltimore’s first Rookie of the Year since Gregg Olson in 1989 and kept the Orioles from securing bonus draft picks by having him on their opening day roster, the club could make up for it in 2023. The Orioles’ second-round pick behind Rutschman in 2019 and his successor as the team’s top prospect, infielder Gunnar Henderson was kept in the minors late enough into the season to retain rookie eligibility entering 2023, meaning he could help net extra selections. Elias also said last month there’s a “very high likelihood” right-hander Grayson Rodriguez, the sport’s top pitching prospect, breaks camp in the Orioles’ rotation, with a right lat muscle strain keeping him from making his debut in 2022. Rodriguez would add to a growing core of youth in Baltimore, joining Rutschman, Henderson, left-hander DL Hall, outfielder Kyle Stowers and others.
But Rutschman is the centerpiece of that group, just as he has been since Elias chose him first overall out of Oregon State in 2019. Although Monday’s results officially decreased the Orioles’ years of team control, they also reinforced how bright the team and Rutschman’s combined future seems to be.