An injury setback. A dominating follow up. Jackson Rutledge’s path to being the Nationals top-ranked prospect was anything but ordinary.
When it became official the 2020 Minor League season was going to be canceled due to COVID, everyone involved was devastated. Jackson Rutledge, the Washington Nationals 2019 first-round pick and the top-rated prospect was no exception.
“It was incredibly frustrating after working so hard that offseason to be ready for a full season,” Rutledge said. “But I never stopped working. I continued like it was a normal season and faced live hitters frequently until the alternate site began.”
The news would have been detrimental to some, but to Rutledge, it was just another roadblock on his path to the majors. At just twenty-one years of age, he has already overcome so much in his career. During his freshman year at Arkansas, he tore his hip labrum, leading to surgery and his decision to transfer to San Jacinto, a Junior College (JUCO).
“The injury, along with the circumstances were very hard to overcome at the time and was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do in baseball to this point”, Rutledge stated.
While he had some success at Arkansas, San Jacinto was where Rutledge made a name for himself, putting up video game esque numbers. In 82.2 innings, he went 9-2, with an insane 0.87 ERA and a whopping 134 strikeouts. His utter dominance caused his draft stock to skyrocket to the point he became a projected first-round pick. His impressive numbers helped him receive some high praise, with MLB.com’s Jim Callis calling him the best JUCO prospect since Bryce Harper.
Shortly after his freshman year ended, and before he had even appeared in a game for San Jacinto, Rutledge announced that for his junior year, he would be heading back to the SEC, as a Kentucky Wildcat. However, his return to the SEC never materialized. He was drafted number 17 overall in 2019 by Washington. Mike Rizzo and company were known for drafting college pitchers in the first round, and Rutledge followed suit. He was the third straight starter Washington took in the first round, and the sixth starter since 2012.
While some were surprised about Rutledge’s rise up the draft boards, this was what he expected for himself. In fact, despite declaring to Kentucky for his Junior year, Rutledge had already set his eyes on going pro.
“After the not ideal first year of college, my goal had been set to make it to pro ball before the year had started”, he said.
His confidence is just another attribute on a long list of what has allowed for the youngster to thrive.
His dedication to the game and overall talent is just a few of the many reasons why the Nationals have made the big right-hander off-limits in trade talks. Viewed as a front-of-the-line starter, Rutledge is known for his fastball that touches 99 mph. MLB Pipeline rates prospects attributes and pitches on a 20-80 scale, with his heater being a 70.
While his heater is his bread and butter, Rutledge also has a swing and miss slider, that complements his fastball well. His curveball has high potential and he is working on his changeup, which if it all comes together, gives him four-plus pitches to utilize.
After being drafted, Rutledge spent ten games across three teams in the minors. The majority of his time was spent with Washington’s Single-A team, where he made six starts. The 2019 first-round pick, be it a small sample size, made the transition from college to the minors look easy. In six starts, he went 2-0, with a 2.30 ERA, and 31 strikeouts. Despite only appearing in 10 minor league games, Rutledge learned an immense amount in his first year in the minors.
“My first year really taught me how to handle being a professional baseball player, not just a baseball player,” he recalled. “Things like how to travel, take care of my own schedules, and act in a clubhouse were the most valuable things I walked away with.”
Much like on the mound, Rutledge had to make quick adjustments.
“The first weird adjustment into pro ball was the lack of formal meetings before and after games,” he said. “Guys are expected to take care of their business without needing their hand held.”
With a brief taste of the minor leagues, Rutledge had his eyes set on his first full season at Single-A. And then the decision to cancel the 2020 Minor League season was announced, leaving many players out in the cold without a job. Luckily for Rutledge, he was one of 60 players in the Nationals organization invited to Fredericksburg. This is where the Nationals Alternative Site, an extended Spring Training or summer camp, was located.
In Fredericksburg, Rutledge was able to take the next step in his development, with the major takeaway from the extra practices and simulated games being how to attack hitters. In the past, Rutledge could take advantage of the less experienced hitters he was facing to swing at certain pitches, but this wasn’t always the case at Fredericksburg.
“The importance of attacking hitters was the biggest takeaway for me, after facing elite hitters in the alternate site,” he said. “Having confidence to go right at a talented hitter and not try to go outside of myself, helped me improve through the year.”
Washington’s big three of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin aren’t getting any younger and all face uncertainty. Rutledge will look to maximize his potential and eventually take over as the face of the rotation. But for now, he will be focused on what is in front of him, improving his pitches, and acclimating to major league talent.
He relishes the challenge and knows what allows him to differentiate himself from other top-pitching prospects. “My work ethic is what separates me from others with as much talent as me,” he said. “The years of dedication to the weight room have given me a physical advantage and continued focused work is what will separate me from others.”
With his first full minor league season looming, all eyes will be on him. Rutledge has the opportunity to fully introduce himself to the baseball world.