The Orioles are undergoing a massive facelift. Recent trades have left their major league roster with a combination of players that, for the most part, fall into two categories: stopgap veterans and unproven youngsters. The guys that are neither one or the other now find themselves in limbo. Will they be a part of the next winning team in Baltimore? Or will they be leveraged as a controllable trade chip in the next year or so?
Trey Mancini is one of those tweeners. In most cases, a guy that batted .293/.338/.488 and finished third in the Rookie of the Year voting just a season ago would be someone to build around. For Mancini, free agency is still four full seasons away. If everything goes to plan, he could be a veteran presence on the next Orioles team to make the playoffs.
However, Mancini doesn’t really fit that mold. He was never an elite prospect after being drafted in the eighth round out of Notre Dame back in 2013, and while there is still plenty to like about his game with the bat, his lack of other tools projects him more as a role player than a franchise cornerstone. Further complicating things for Mancini is the presence of Chris Davis, a former All-Star, and current black hole, that collects a massive paycheck and plays Mancini’s natural position, first base.
The 26-year-old Mancini is part of the glut of first base/DH types that have played for the 2018 Orioles. In addition to Davis, there is also Mark Trumbo, Danny Valencia and Pedro Alvarez.
In order to get Mancini’s bat into the everyday lineup, manager Buck Showalter converted him into a left fielder in 2017 and has continued to use him as a regular at the position throughout 2018, with some occasional time at first base.
To keep it simple, Mancini is a disaster in the outfield. His -21.5 UZR/150 is the worst among all qualified MLB left fielders by a substantial margin (Rhys Hoskins is second worst, -16.4). His saving grace, surprisingly, has been his arm. Despite the unconventional, almost painful-looking throwing motion, it grades out as league average. Teams do like to test it, though, resulting in eight outfield assists, the seventh most in baseball.
Continuing to play Mancini in left field would be a disservice to all involved. His skill set clearly does not fit at the position. Try as he might, it’s difficult for him. On top of that, the Orioles are likely to be trotting droves of young pitchers to the mound over the next two seasons. Putting players in the outfield that can save a hit here or there would be a great asset.
On top of that, Mancini’s splits between first base and left field are drastic, although the first base sample size is still a bit small. Over 62 games and 228 plate appearances at his natural position, Mancini is hitting .280/.320/.519 with 13 home runs, 10 doubles, 11 walks and 56 strikeouts. As a left fielder with 172 games and 624 plate appearances worth of work, he has a .258/.318/.417 line with 22 home runs, 27 doubles, 51 walks and 161 strikeouts.
In order to find out what the O’s really have in Mancini, they need to put him in a position to succeed. Sure, he could play left field in an absolute emergency, but almost all of his at-bats should come while playing first base or DH. You can make the argument that he is already a better defensive first baseman than Davis. In limited innings this season, he has a UZR/150 of -4.2 at the position compared to Davis’s -5.1. With more regular game time, that may improve.
Showalter could make Mancini his everyday first baseman right now, but that seems unlikely. What feels more possible is that Mancini is the starting first baseman by the time Opening Day 2019 rolls around. By then, the O’s will have had time to purge the roster of redundant players.
The contracts of Valencia and Alvarez expire at the end of the season, leaving Trumbo as the elephant in the room. His current deal runs through the 2019 season and pays him a fairly reasonable $13.5 million. Even still, the O’s are hoping to trim the big league payroll and Trumbo’s bounce-back at the plate (.262/.317/.459) should make him a trade-able piece in the off-season, if not sooner. His value in a trade will be meager, but it would be worth it to unload his salary and open up the roster spot.
That leaves Davis and Mancini to rotate between first base and DH. Imagine that, two positions for two players. Splitting the workload could be beneficial for Davis as well. He owns a career .280/.364/.525 line as a DH compared to his .231/.319/.468 work at first. Mancini has done a nice job at DH in the limited opportunities he has had in his career too: 26 games, 94 plate appearances, .291/.351/.535.
Apart from lightening the daily burden on Mancini, along with a possible side effect of helping Davis, these roster moves create opportunities in Baltimore for some of the O’s top prospects. According to MLB Pipeline, four of the organization’s top six prospects are outfielders and Ryan Mountcastle may still make the move to the grass. Not to mention, all of those outfielders, plus Mountcastle, have played at the Double-A level or above. They aren’t all ready for the bigs, but many are close. Throw in guys like D.J. Stewart and Mike Yastrzemski in Triple-A Norfolk and you have a huge number of players at one position that deserve at least a cup of coffee in the bigs.
Mancini is not really a left fielder. He never was. The Orioles tried to fit a square peg in a round hole. That was unfair to the Notre Dame product, but he did his time and now deserves a shot in a less foreign position. That doesn’t necessarily mean he will be a key cog in the next competitive team in Baltimore, but finding out what Mancini is truly capable of is a necessary part of the process in this major overhaul of the entire Orioles organization.