The Orioles entered the 2015 draft with a pair of first round picks, thanks to the departure of Nelson Cruz. With the first of the picks, Dan Duquette selected D.J. Stewart, a seasoned college contact hitter who the O’s presumably hoped would be quick to the majors.
Duquette’s second pick was the complete opposite: an 18-year-old shortstop with a ton of raw talent by the name of Ryan Mountcastle. Shortly after being drafted, Mountcastle slotted in toward the back end of the top 10 on many organizational prospect lists. Others had him even lower; Fangraphs’ list at the end of 2015 had Mountcastle at #13 behind the likes of Jonah Heim and Dariel Alvarez.
Mountcastle started his pro career in the Gulf Coast League, and did what you’d expect a first round pick to do in rookie ball. He hit .313/.349/.411 (128 wRC+) in 43 games before being moved to Aberdeen for the last two weeks of the season.
Despite his offensive prowess, there were concerns about Mountcastle’s ability to stick at the shortstop position. This was a known issue when he was drafted, and those who saw him play in the minors in 2015 made it seem like his likely destination was left field, due to a lack of shortstop range and a below-average arm.
Still, he played every one of his 105 games in 2016 at shortstop for Delmarva. He hit .281/.319/.426 (111 wRC+) that year. Between his offensive success and the general ineptitude of some of the Orioles’ other minor leaguers, Mountcastle was starting to climb the ranks of the organizational prospect lists, with some ranking him as highly as third.
Mountcastle was promoted again in 2017, to high-A Frederick, and he lived up to his newfound hype in a big way. Over 379 plate appearances, Mountcastle hit .314/.343/.542 (146 wRC+) with 15 homers. That earned him a promotion to Bowie, but he struggled the rest of the season, hitting just .222/.239/.366 in 39 games.
Also of note, Mountcastle didn’t play a single game at shortstop for the Baysox. Once he was promoted, he became their everyday third baseman. This was the first sign that the Orioles may agree with the scouts’ assessments of his defense. The 34 errors he made in 187 games at shortstop between 2016 and 2017 probably didn’t help, either.
At this point, we know Mountcastle can hit. But there are still two huge question marks with regard to his future in the major leagues. First of all, where does he play? The third base experiment for him has begun, but if he doesn’t have a good enough arm for shortstop, how will that play at third?
And if the scouts are correct about his future as a left fielder, where does he fit in among the other young outfielders in the organization? Remember, he’s played a grand total of zero innings in the outfield as a professional, so whether he can even play a decent outfield is still up in the air.
Not only that, D.J. Stewart is starting to knock on the door of the big leagues while Trey Mancini, Austin Hays, and Anthony Santander are already there. The O’s are also still paying Mark Trumbo (for now) and Chris Davis (forever). There are only so many at-bats to go around.
There’s another big issue here as well, one that hopefully will get better with age since Mountcastle is still just 20. We know he’s got some power, and we know he can put the bat on the ball, but one thing he doesn’t do is walk. He’s never had a walk rate higher than 5.1% at any level of the minors.
During his partial season in Frederick, when he was the best we’ve ever seen him at the plate, Mountcastle’s walk rate was 3.7%. For comparison, Adam Jones has a career walk rate of 4.5%. If he was in the majors, that 3.7% walk rate would be fifth lowest among all qualified hitters, down with free-swingers like Brandon Phillips and Salvador Perez.
All of this goes to show that we still have no clue how Mountcastle fits into the Orioles’ future. On one hand, he can hit, and maybe, just maybe, he can stick at shortstop or at least third base. On the other hand, he might end up being a corner outfielder who can’t walk, and it’s anybody’s guess how good he’d be out there in the field.
Mountcastle still has more raw talent than almost any other hitter in the organization, and we’ve seen what he can do with it. Because of that alone, he’s an exciting prospect. In all likelihood, a full season at Bowie next year will give us a clearer picture of where he actually fits into the Orioles’ plans.