The Orioles won’t get to carry their two wins from this weekend into the regular season, unfortunately. But on a team with so many new faces and so little big league experience, earning positive results in these fake games can still be valuable.
That said, it’s almost impossible to draw conclusions about this team from just two exhibitions in which many of the team’s well-know hitters only took two at-bats and their more established hurlers have yet to even see the mound. But a blog about patiently waiting for the process of spring training to play out wouldn’t be much fun to read, so let’s go extreme!
Ryan Mountcastle is a first baseman now
Mountcastle’s descent down baseball’s defensive spectrum was swift. The top prospect was a full-time shortstop in 2016, then split time between shortstop and third base in 2017, moved to third base full time in 2018, and now the Orioles have handed him a first baseman’s mitt this spring. For a 22-year-old that has likely been the best player on the field throughout most of his life, that’s sure to be a tough pill to swallow.
Scouting reports predicted Mountcastle’s move across the diamond long ago. His arm has always been regarded as below average, while his hands and range in the field were adequate, but nothing more. Regardless of his fielding abilities, the bat has always been what was going to carry the Florida native through the pro ranks. So far, he is delivering on that front.
Mountcastle was more than three years younger than the average Double-A player in 2018, and yet he still hit .297/.341/.464 with 13 home runs and 19 doubles across 102 games for the Bowie Baysox in a year where he missed more than a month with injuries. Moving to first base puts even more pressure on his bat to develop, but it’s possible that playing a simpler defensive position can allow Mountcastle to focus on his work at the plate. He won’t make the club out of the spring. Expect to see him as either Bowie’s or Norfolk’s starting first baseman most of the year, with a cameo in Baltimore possible late in the summer.
Zach Pop’s fastball is missing
Pop was one of the less-heralded pieces that came to the Orioles in the Manny Machado trade last July. He played at three levels in 2018, finishing off with 14 games in Bowie. Over the entire season, he compiled a 1.53 ERA, .175 opponent batting average and struck out 64 batters in 64.2 innings.
The 22-year-old right-hander’s calling card is a big fastball that has flirted with triple digits in the past. His ceiling is that of a high-leverage reliever, especially if he can find another offering to complement his heat.
Pop saw his first spring action in the O’s spring opener against the Twins, closing out the win with a 1-2-3 ninth inning. He didn’t allow any base runners and he struck out one hitter in the process, but something didn’t look right. According to MLB.com, Pop threw five total pitches, mostly fastballs, and none of them even reached 89 mph, and they were all right in the middle of the plate. Yikes.
MASN’s Roch Kubatko spoke to Pop after the game. The young pitcher said his approach was intentional. He “wasn’t trying to get after it at all...nothing to an extreme.” So, there’s that. Without any reports out of camp of an injury, Pop’s word should be trusted. It’s the first spring game. He knows he is likely destined for the minors this season anyway. He’s right that he doesn’t need to blow hitters away right now. Until we see evidence that there is an issue, we will assume it’s just a spring training oddity.
Yusniel Diaz is going to put pressure on the fringe outfielders
According to most industry scouting services, Diaz is the Orioles number one prospect. The line on him is that he’s got above average tools across the board, but not one outstanding attribute. That may be true, but he is said to be putting on a show in batting practices so far this spring and already has one in-game home run.
Diaz, like Mountcastle and Pop, is almost surely going to the minor leagues to begin 2019. He will be 22 years old all season, and the Orioles have no reason to promote him until later on this year. But a breakout spring could be a harbinger for things to come during the summer. That means the likes of D.J. Stewart, Joey Rickard and Mike Yastrzemski had better step up their game.
Jimmy Yacabonis may have figured something out
It has been an up-and-down big league career (mostly down) for Yacabonis thus far, but he seemed to find his groove at the end of 2018. In the month of September, the right-handed pitcher appeared in six games, starting three, and accumulating a 2.61 ERA, 1.161 WHIP, 17 strikeouts and nine walks over 20.2 innings. It was a performance that is unlikely to get him on the national radar, but more than enough to make him a useful arm on this Orioles team.
Yacabonis’s success carried into Sunday, when he fanned three hitters, while allowing one hit and no walks in two innings against the Blue Jays. Again, it’s the smallest of sample sizes, but results are results.
While far from a “lock” to make the team, Yacabonis seems well-positioned to earn a roster spot. His role on that roster remains unclear. He showed an ability to be an effective opener in September, but could fit as a normal middle reliever too. Who cares about the role as long as we get to see more of that nasty slider of his.
Jimmy Yacabonis, Wicked 84mph Slider (path). pic.twitter.com/5teCmdcNzT— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 20, 2018
Positions are becoming clearer
Mike Elias has seemingly built the current version of the Orioles to be as versatile as possible, especially on the infield. But baseball players are creatures of habit. It would be difficult to have all nine players moving around the field everyday and expect them to perform. It’s hard enough to be major league-ready at one position, let alone a handful. Some can do it, many more cannot.
Two games do not provide enough evidence to suggest any one player is locked into a position, but it does give us an idea of where new manager Brandon Hyde expects to send “his guys” on occasion this season.
The Mountcastle revelation is a big one. Given the number of left side infielders in camp, he is probably staying at first base for good. It also impacts one of the team’s most established hitters: Trey Mancini.
Mancini is a natural first baseman, but Chris Davis and his contract are cemented at the position for the time being, and it looks like Mountcastle will be there in the future. The DH spot is likely to be Mark Trumbo’s for now until he is traded or his contract runs out after this season. That leaves Mancini stuck in left field, once again. He played five innings there on Sunday. A spring training trade of Trumbo is possible, but unlikely given that he is coming off of a season-ending injury.
Back on the infield, we are learning about the possible formation of the double play duo. There was some question about where Jonathan Villar would play. Early indicators are that he is back at second base. Rule 5 picks Richie Martin and Drew Jackson have seen all of their innings at shortstop.
Martin will most likely remain at shortstop for the duration of camp as he battles Alcides Escobar for the starting role. Jackson, on the other hand, may have to show he can play elsewhere. The O’s will want to hold onto both of them if possible. Jackson playing other infield positions or in the corner outfield spots would make that much easier.