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Orioles offseason positional breakdown: Trey Mancini entering winter of uncertainty as Ryan Mountcastle grows into first base job

The Baltimore Sun
The Baltimore Sun
 2021-10-21
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The Orioles' Trey Mancini, left, is congratulated by teammate Ryan Mountcastle after his solo home run against the Red Sox at Camden Yards on May 10, 2021. Kenneth K. Lam

Without playoff baseball filling their days, October is an occasion for the Orioles to take stock of their roster and start planning how they’ll put together their 2022 team.

That doesn’t just include which players will be back and who might replace them. For a team like the Orioles, who are starting to bring some of the products from executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias’ promised “elite talent pipeline” up to the majors, that planning also includes forecasting when their prospects could join the major league team and start contributing.

At some positions, prospects climbing the ladder will find an established part of their future blocking their way to the majors. Others don’t have much resistance once they arrive, and others are somewhere in between.

This month, we’ll break down how the Orioles got through 2021 at each position, which prospects are on the cusp of joining that mix and how all that will color their offseason plans.

First came catcher, where Pedro Severino will soon give way to Adley Rutschman . Next is first base, where Trey Mancini and Ryan Mountcastle might have already made a similar handoff.

The mainstays

The Orioles essentially had two everyday first basemen — Mancini for the first 100 games or so, then Mountcastle for the rest of the year. Mancini’s comeback from stage 3 colon cancer was an overall success, even if he’ll want to have better than his 21 home runs and .758 OPS to show for it. That he was available all year is a credit to the work he did to get himself back, and the fact that he was mostly a designated hitter in the final two-plus months of the season didn’t have a lot to do with him.

Mountcastle, who began the year trying to replicate his useful cameo in left field at the end of the shortened 2020 season, wasn’t progressing the way the Orioles would have hoped there, and his presence in the outfield made for a lineup headache when all of Austin Hays, DJ Stewart and Anthony Santander were available for selection. One would have to be the odd-man out, so Mountcastle instead moved back to first base regularly.

Defensively, he got much better as his time there went on, growing comfortable moving around the bag and dealing with the challenges of an infield that was in flux for a reason — it was full of inconsistent players. He was there for his bat, though, and his 33 home runs and .796 OPS were among the best of all the league’s rookies this year.

The rest of the major league factors

Mancini and Mountcastle combined to make all but four starts at first base for the Orioles this year, with two early in the season going to Pat Valaika and rookie Tyler Nevin getting the other two over Memorial Day weekend. Valaika was more utility infielder than anything else, but Nevin can be considered a first baseman given he’s spent plenty of time there in the minors.

Nevin didn’t get much of a chance this year, but hit well in his limited time with the Orioles after he was added back to the roster in September. He went 4-for-14 with a home run and two doubles in the majors, though his time at Triple-A Norfolk was less impactful as he had a .696 OPS in a full season there.

The future

Mountcastle being the youngest everyday Oriole this year and garnering Rookie of the Year consideration means the future of first base for the team isn’t on the farm, it’s on the big league roster.

It’s a pretty fascinating position group in the minors, though, even if there’s not necessarily a big-name prospect among them. Nevin shared time with JC Escarra and Ryan Ripken at Norfolk, and there are plenty of names to watch behind them. J.D. Mundy, an undrafted free agent from 2020, got from Low-A Delmarva all the way to Double-A Bowie by mashing 15 home runs in 72 games in his full-season debut. After he went down with a thumb injury in August that meant he didn’t get a chance to even appear for the Baysox, Andrew Daschbach picked up the slack, hitting eight home runs in his 30 games for Bowie while ending the year with 16 and an .806 OPS.

Another undrafted free agent from 2020, TT Bowens, hit 18 home runs with a .781 OPS between Delmarva and High-A Aberdeen. And behind him, 2021 13th-round pick Jacob Teter had 15 extra-base hits and an .893 OPS in his pro debut.

None seem the type to push Mountcastle off first base any time soon, though there’s a chance the Orioles can get some cheap auxiliary power from any of these sources in the coming years. The nearest thing to a successor to Mountcastle at first base in the Orioles’ farm system is teenage third base prospect Coby Mayo, who had a tremendous debut this summer but has a frame that could grow to the point that he’s too big for the position. He certainly has the makings of a bat that could play at first.

The offseason outlook

Once Mountcastle’s place in the Rookie of the Year balloting is settled, the Orioles will have to tackle one of the thorniest topics this front office has seen yet: Mancini’s future. The face of this Orioles rebuild is entering his final season before reaching free agency, and with a projected salary arbitration raise to $7.9 million according to MLBTradeRumors.com , there are plenty of factors that suggest he might be elsewhere in 2022.

The Orioles haven’t paid anyone that much in salary arbitration under executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias, but the ways they’ve avoided that — by trading or releasing the player around the time contracts must be tendered in early December — are particularly unpleasant to think about for a player who battled what Mancini did in 2020.

The alternative, of course, is to keep Mancini. They could do it just for next year, or sign him to a long-term deal if that’s something both parties are interested in. Either way, that would mean Mountcastle and Mancini just rotate between first base and designated hitter in 2022. There’s a pretty big inflection point for when that would stop working though: Rutschman’s pending arrival.

Baseball’s top prospect will be someone who commands everyday at-bats, but catching every day for a full season isn’t feasible. Rutschman made 28 starts at first base this year with 14 more at designated hitter, and essentially caught four games each week. He might not be with the team early in the season, but once he is, they’ll need flexibility to get him into the lineup.

That would be difficult with both Mancini and Mountcastle on the roster, but to the extent the Orioles are thinking about anything outside of just the value they get for the money they spend on major league salaries and whether it’s worth paying millions to a player who will be on a struggling team, this is certainly a factor that could color their offseason decisions.

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