As the Orioles try to piece together a starting lineup for a sure-to-be-ugly 2019 season, who’s the heavy-hitting run producer to build around? Who’s the guy to stick into the No. 3 or cleanup spot to capitalize on RBI opportunities (as infrequent as they may be)?
There are precious few options. Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop are long gone. Adam Jones almost certainly will be, too. Mark Trumbo will be three years removed from his last healthy, productive season, and might still be sidelined by injury to start 2019. And Chris Davis? Hahaha! Good one.
Almost by default, the Orioles’ most likely middle-of-the-order man next year is their homegrown, soon-to-be 27-year-old slugger, Trey Mancini.
If that doesn’t exactly fill you with confidence, well, I don’t blame you. Any lineup in which Trey Mancini is the anchor probably isn’t going to score a lot of runs, at least if he doesn’t improve on his 2018 campaign.
Entering the season, the O’s were counting on Mancini to be one of their top thumpers, thanks to a breakout 2017 in which he hit .293/.338/.488, socked 24 homers, and finished third in the AL Rookie of the Year vote behind Aaron Judge and Andrew Benintendi. That, I regret to inform you, is probably the last time Mancini will ever be mentioned in the same breath as Judge and Benintendi.
Mancini’s sophomore season, simply put, was a dud. The best thing to be said is that his home run power remained consistent; he socked 24 roundtrippers for the second straight year, tying for the team lead (with Machado, who was traded in July). But across the board, Mancini’s offensive numbers fell off the table. His batting average dipped more than 50 points (to .242), his OBP fell below the .300 mark (to .299), and he lost 72 points of slugging (to .416).
What the heck happened? It’s not immediately clear. In 2018 compared to 2017, Mancini’s line drive and fly ball rate both dipped a bit while his ground ball rate rose, but not alarmingly so. His ratio of softly hit, medium hit, and hard hit batted balls remained almost the same in both seasons. He might have gotten a bit unlucky in 2018 — or at least, not as lucky as 2017. His batting average on balls in play dropped nearly 70 points, from .352 to .285. So perhaps a regression was inevitable.
If there’s cause for encouragement, it’s that Mancini heated up at the plate after the All-Star break following a miserable first half. In the second half, Mancini batted .276 with a .792 OPS in 65 games, in contrast to marks of .216 and .655 in 91 games beforehand. That included a red-hot August in which Mancini hit .291/.319/.555 with seven homers and 20 RBIs, though he couldn’t sustain that momentum in September.
Now we have to move on to the ugliest part of Mancini’s season: his defense. This is not for the faint of heart. If you have small children, please take them out of the room.
Mancini, who came up through the minor leagues as a first baseman and only a first baseman, was tragically miscast as an outfielder for the second year in a row. The results were brutal. Though Mancini tried his best, and flashed a decent arm at times (eight outfield assists) his often circuitous routes and general awkwardness in left field was painfully evident. He was unable to haul in fly balls that most outfielders would catch with their eyes closed. Per FanGraphs, Mancini posted an ugly -12 defensive runs saved, worse than any AL outfielder except Teoscar Hernandez (-16), Nicholas Castellanos (-19), and, yes, Mancini’s own teammate, Adam Jones (-25).
Just a year earlier, Mancini had been bad but not horrid in left field, with a -1 DRS in 2017. So an extra year of experience in the outfield certainly didn’t bring the improvements the Orioles would’ve hoped for Mancini. He looked more uncomfortable than ever.
Could Mancini’s defensive struggles in the outfield have affected his offense? It’s possible. In his career, Mancini has a .729 OPS when playing left field, much worse than when he plays his natural position of first base (.801) or serves as the DH (.928). That could simply be a case of small sample size; Mancini has more starts in left field than at first and DH combined.
Still, for defensive purposes alone, the O’s need to get Mancini out of left field, post haste. The O’s have a number of outfield prospects on the rise (including Austin Hays, Yusniel Diaz, Ryan McKenna, and the already-arrived Cedric Mullins) who provide a massive upgrade with the glove over Mancini. As of now, though, Mancini’s best position is one that’s blocked by the Orioles’ nine-figure albatross, Davis, whom the club doesn’t seem keen on dumping anytime soon.
What does the future hold for Mancini? That might depend on what decision the Orioles make with Davis. If they bite the bullet and give Davis his walking papers, Mancini could become their new regular at first base, where he’s most comfortable, or possibly at DH. That, in turn, might allow him to relax a bit more offensively.
But if the O’s continue to block Mancini with Davis, forcing him to bumble around the outfield for at least another year, it’s hard to see Mancini providing huge value to the Birds.