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Orioles reset: Work scouting Adley Rutschman — before and after star turn — begins to pay off for Baltimore

As Adley Rutschman tore up the College World Series, starred for the national collegiate team and became the center of amateur baseball to establish himself as the favorite to be the first overall pick in the next year’s draft, the man who eventually made him that didn’t bat an eye.

“I barely paid attention to anything he did,” Mike Elias said Sunday, almost four years after Rutschman’s star turn and a day after he made his major league debut for the Orioles.

At the time, Elias was an assistant general manager for the Houston Astros, with amateur scouting among the areas he oversaw. He had been a part of three first overall selections there, but with the Astros coming off a World Series title in 2017 and seeking another in 2018, he figured devoting time to Rutschman would be fruitless with Houston’s first pick in 2019 likely coming late in the first round, long after the catcher had come off the board.

Then, in November 2018, Elias became the Orioles’ executive vice president and general manager, inheriting not only a team that had lost 115 games, but also the first overall pick in 2019.

“I immediately started thinking about him,” Elias said.

As he settled into his new job, Elias “kind of jokingly” texted the Astros’ West Coast scouts to ask whether the Orioles should draft Rutschman or Cal first baseman Andrew Vaughn. Texas high school shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. eventually joined the mix, as well, with Elias saying any of that trio could’ve gone first overall in a given year.

But he was locked in on Rutschman early, just as Brandon Verley, then the Orioles’ Northwest area scout, had been. The Rutschman name was revered in Oregon circles; Ad Rutschman, the catcher’s grandfather, led Linfield College to national titles in both football and baseball. But Rutschman made an impression on his own in one of the first games Verley watched his senior year at Sherwood High School, catching six innings, hitting a homer, and taking the mound and striking out the side with a mid-90s fastball and plus breaking ball in the seventh. His intangibles — the leadership, the confidence, the instincts — shined through as he did so.

“He just stands out,” Verley said. “It’s hard to explain.”

Verley said there were “three or four teams that were willing to put a big investment in him” out of high school, but Rutschman’s Oregon State commitment was strong enough that no team drafted him until the Seattle Mariners took a shot in the 40th and final round.

He played both football and baseball as a freshman in Corvallis, Oregon, catching for the Beavers’ College World Series team but struggling offensively. Verley noted how the high school seasons in the Northwest are about 20 games, compared to 35-game seasons in Florida, where he’s now based for the Orioles. That works out to be three seasons’ worth of a difference over the course of a high school career.

“They just don’t have as many games under their belt at that point in their career, so yeah, he had some things to do,” Verley said. “He really honed in on his catching skills and becoming a leader and learning that position at the college level his first year, and he didn’t swing the bat great. But then, after he was comfortable and with his ability defensively and kind of really focusing on being a catcher, remaining a catcher and fine-tuning those, then his bat took off.”

As a sophomore, Rutschman hit .408/.505/.628 for the Beavers, setting a College World Series record with 17 hits to earn Most Outstanding Player honors as Oregon State won the national title. He did so while the Orioles’ 2018 season fell apart early. Suddenly, Verley wasn’t just scouting a potential first overall pick, but one Baltimore might actually be able to take in that spot.

“People were already talking about it,” Verley said.

That offseason, with the No. 1 selection secured, the Orioles revamped their front office, bringing in Elias to oversee a rebuild. He promised to build an “elite talent pipeline,” with the first piece of that likely to be whoever they took atop the 2019 draft.

That winter, Elias flew from Baltimore to Portland, then drove the hour and a half to Corvallis to meet Rutschman for the first time, with Verley and Dave Bloom, a California-based scout, joining them in the coach’s office at Goss Stadium.

During his time with the Astros, Elias had been part of several similar meetings. Rutschman’s stood out.

“Because of all of the high picks in Houston, I have a lot of experience sitting down with some of these players that go really high in the draft, and I kind of have a lot of comparisons,” Elias said. “It was one of the more [impressive] meetings that I’ve ever had. Just the intelligence, how quick his mind works, the composure that he had, the sort of confidence that he had, the way that he treated the people around him. Wasn’t surprising, but it was a very impressive meeting.”

Verley had been seeing those traits for years. Working for a new front office and scouting the player who would represent the club’s most significant decision in that group’s first season, he admittedly felt pressure. Elias did, too, knowing firsthand the difficulty of making a top pick.

“Even when you have kind of an anointed No. 1 guy,” Elias said, “it’s never as clear as it looks.”

But Rutschman’s play — he hit .411/.575/.751 with twice as many walks as strikeouts to win every amateur award he could — and personality put them at ease.

“He was, I guess, as easy as a guy that you could scout, but there’s always complications to every player,” Verley said. “But I believed in it so much that it took away from being nervous about, ‘Oh my gosh, are we sure that this is the guy?’ I had no doubt in my mind that he was the best player in the draft at that time.”

It took almost three years from that selection for Rutschman to reach the majors, with perhaps the final week of the wait the most excruciating with the fan base circling dates they expected him to arrive.

Now that he’s here, Verley is looking forward to watching just as much as anyone else.

“I’ve always kind of felt like a fan, to some degree, of Adley Rutschman,” Verley said. “Even during the process of scouting him, I was still a fan, which we try to separate as scouts as much as we can and take that bias out, but at some point, you got to fall in love with the kid, especially having a chance to watch him and be that that close to his every move that spring.

“I’m an Adley Rutschman fan, just like any of us are. I’m really excited for his future.”

What’s to come?

A week without any Orioles’ walk-offs. After closing their latest homestand with three in four games, the Orioles take the road to visit the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.

The latter series features five games in four days, with a doubleheader Saturday at Fenway Park accounting for the first of six games that were reshuffled into Baltimore’s schedule as a result of the season’s delay from the league’s lockout.

What was good?

Rougned Odor, glue guy. The man responsible for the Orioles’ “Call of Duty”-themed binocular celebration and home run chain is now contributing with his bat. He entered this homestand hitting .189, then recorded a hit in each of this week’s seven games, going 8-for-25 while slugging .640 and delivering both of Baltimore’s walk-offs against the Tampa Bay Rays, a team they hadn’t won a series against since their first meeting of the shortened 2020 season.

“Roogie brings a lot of grit and just hard-nosed baseball to this team,” Austin Hays said. “You see how well he’s been hitting late in games, big-time situations, pinch-hitting situations, and I think that has just gone to the rest of the hitters in the lineup. I think he’s a huge piece of that, just mindset-wise and just never quitting.”

What wasn’t?

Before Rutschman’s arrival, the big talking point this week at Camden Yards was the changes to the venue’s left field wall. New York’s Aaron Judge and Aaron Boone both critiqued the changes, while Trey Mancini laughingly acknowledged, “No hitters like it, myself included.” The narrative will continue throughout the season, especially as it warms up in Baltimore and more balls sail toward the new wall. An inning before Odor’s walk-off grounder Sunday, Ryan McKenna lost what would’ve been a game-winning, three-run home run. The Orioles and visitors have lost 10 home runs each to the wall.

“We made the move for a reason,” Elias said, “and that reason is Orioles pitchers.”

On the farm

Taken with the Orioles’ second-round pick in that 2019 draft, Gunnar Henderson was, as Elias put it, “a sort of player development project” after Baltimore grabbed the shortstop out of an Alabama high school. Instead, he’s become “a flagship aspect of what our player development group is doing on the hitting side,” Elias said.

After a three-home run week for Double-A Bowie, Henderson, 20, is fourth in the Eastern League with a .988 OPS, with Elias noting his impressive walk-to-strikeout ratio (35 against 27).

“He’s rapidly — physically and mentally — maturing, which now he’s 20 years old, he’s kind of turning into an adult,” Elias said. “It’s awesome seeing the start that he’s having.”

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