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Orioles prospect season in review: Ryan Mountcastle

Drafted 36th overall in 2015, Ryan Mountcastle posses an elite bat that projects well at the Major League level. Questions about his defense will likely determine his fate in 2019.

Minor League Baseball: Arizona Fall League-All Star Game Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Orioles fans fondly remember the one-year, $8-million dollar deal that Nelson Cruz signed in 2014. Cruz produced well above the value of the contract, and was an integral part of winning the AL East. His league-leading 40 home runs and 108 RBIs had him named an All Star, and he finished seventh in American League MVP voting.

But after all of that production, Cruz’s greatest value to the Orioles may still be in the works. The club made a qualify offer to Cruz after the 2014 season, which Cruz eventually turned down. The Mariners gave the power hitter a four-year, $57-million deal, and Baltimore received a compensational draft pick. The Orioles used that pick, the 36th overall in the 2015 draft, to select Ryan Mountcastle.

Flash forward to 2018, and Mountcastle is the Orioles second ranked prospect. If not for the Orioles acquiring Yusniel Diaz in the Manny Machado deal, Mountcastle would be the top Baby Bird on the farm.

The Orioles selected Mountcastle as a shortstop, but concerns about his arm strength have led to a position shift to third base. Insert mandatory Oriole shifting from short to third reference here (Hey, Cal).

The Winter Springs, Florida native was drafted out of Paul J Hagerty High School, and is still only 21 years old. He’s now able to have a legal drink in the United States, and capable of hitting at Double-A too.

After spending all of 2016 at Delmarva, he split 2017 between Frederick and Bowie. He hit .314 at Frederick, but managed only a .222 average at Bowie where he was four years younger than the average player. Mountcastle bounced back in the Arizona fall league, and spent all of 2018 back at Bowie.

Mountcastle got a late start to the season after fracturing his wrist in spring training, but he managed to play 102 games for the Baysox. The infielder hit .297 and got on base at a .341 clip. He was named to the Eastern League All Star game after an impressive first half.

Despite his spot near the top of the rankings on the Orioles prospect list, Mountcastle did not get a cup of coffee during the Orioles dreadful September. Instead, the Orioles used roster spots for players that would need to be protected from the Rule-5 draft. Mountcastle will not require a promotion to the 40-man roster this offseason.

That being said, Mountcastle’s time table will likely depend on his defense. Whether or not Buck Showalter is still running the show, the Orioles manager will want a guy capable of playing Major League defense. He’ll likely start the season playing third at Triple-A Norfolk, but he could bounce back to short or even over to first base early in the season. That being said, the Orioles are definitely not in need of another first baseman in 2019.

The best case scenario for the infielder is that he continues to hit, plays at least average defense on the left side of the infield, and demands a promotion with his play by the end of next season. If he’s not already there by the time rosters expand in September, expect Mountcastle to make his big-league debut at the end of the year.

Simply put, Mountcastle is a guy to get excited about. It’s okay to get your hopes up. Nobody expects him to slide in and be the next Ripken or Machado, but this guy has a bat that should play in the Major Leagues. Barring a trade or injury, he should make his debut at some point in 2019. How he fares in the first half of next season will go a long way in determining when that will be.