Adley Rutschman, Keibert Ruiz face off for first time as rebuild centerpieces

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Rutschman, Ruiz face off for first time as rebuild centerpieces originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

BALTIMORE — The Nationals began a two-game series with the Orioles on Tuesday looking up at Baltimore in the league standings, a role reversal for the two regional neighbors after years of the former competing for championships and the latter orchestrating a full-scale rebuild.

The Orioles still aren’t done rebuilding. After falling 3-0 in the series opener, they sit at the bottom of the AL East, trailing the first-place New York Yankees by 20 and a half games. However, there’s optimism for the near future in the Inner Harbor with 2019 No. 1 overall pick and consensus top prospect Adley Rutschman up in the majors. The catcher is the centerpiece of their young foundation, a group the team hopes will soon make Baltimore an annual contender in one of baseball’s toughest divisions.

Meanwhile, Washington is just getting underway with a reboot of its own. At the center of its plans is another catcher, 23-year-old Keibert Ruiz. The former top prospect of the Los Angeles Dodgers arrived in D.C. as part of the club’s return for trading Max Scherzer and Trea Turner. He’s since become the Nationals’ everyday backstop and has already shown All-Star potential.

It’s no rare occurrence for rebuilding teams to build around a franchise catcher. Clubs with high draft selections typically target players up the middle — that is, catchers, middle infielders, center fielders and, of course, pitchers. The thinking there is that players at those positions are the most athletic and defensively skilled, allowing them to either stick at those physically demanding positions or move out to the corners if the team needs them elsewhere.

“Whether it’s a catcher or anywhere else, you want to be strong up the middle,” Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said in his pregame press conference Tuesday. “That’s been like that for 100 years. You need to be strong up the middle, play good defense and we’re starting to get there.”

There are examples across the league. The Pittsburgh Pirates’ trio of potential cornerstones consists of catcher Henry Davis, second baseman Nick Gonzales and the recently called up shortstop Oneil Cruz. The Detroit Tigers, in the midst of their sixth-straight losing season, just activated potential everyday center fielder Riley Greene. Owners of baseball’s worst record, the Oakland Athletics’ top two prospects are both catchers: Shea Langeliers and Tyler Soderstrom.

Rutschman, 24, was most lauded as a prospect for his defensive makeup and power potential at the plate. Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, he only played one full season in the minor leagues but made it count with 23 home runs and an .899 OPS between Double- and Triple-A in 2021. Across 25 games since his MLB call-up, he’s hit .207 with one home run and a .614 OPS. Those numbers aren’t pretty, but it’s far too small a sample for anyone to panic just yet.

“With each new level, there’s going to be different struggles,” Rutschman said. “Baseball is a game of ups and downs so you just kinda deal with them as they come.”

As important as catchers are to the game, the position has struggled as a whole on the offensive side in recent years.

That could soon change with young backstops like Rutschman, Ruiz, the Blue Jays’ Gabriel Moreno and Alejandro Kirk as well as the Cincinnati Reds’ Tyler Stephenson all breaking into the majors the last few years while Davis, the New York Mets’ Francisco Álvarez, Luis Campusano of the San Diego Padres and the Athletics’ pair of catchers all not far behind.

“The talent is there,” Ruiz said, as translated by Nationals interpreter Octavio Martinez. “We just have to keep making the adjustments that you have to make at this level and keep working hard and doing what we can every day, but I feel like the ability for all of us is there.”