News flash — the 2019 Orioles are hard to watch. A big part of that has to do with the fact that there are hardly any current players we reasonably expect to be around when the team is good again. So how can this team salvage the little watchability they have left? Why not promote an exciting youngster?
One of the biggest arguments against this is that if the team waits until a couple weeks into next season, they gain an extra year of control over said player. Personally, I have never been a fan of this strategy. When did anyone ever say, “if we could have only had player X for one more year of arbitration, we would’ve been a dynasty.” If a player is that good, then sign him to an extension long before his exit even becomes an issue. I know a lot of you will disagree with this sentiment, but throw the fans a bone in this dismal season for goodness sake.
Which brings us to one of the more promising hitters in the Orioles’ farm system. As of this morning, Ryan Mountcastle has accumulated 286 at-bats this year in Triple-A. That brings his total number of minor league at-bats since 2015 — the start of his pro career — to 1,844. Is that enough seasoning?
In 69 games with Norfolk this year, Mountcastle is hitting well, like he has at virtually every stop of his minor league career. He’s got a .311/.332/.503 triple slash line with an .836 OPS, 14 doubles, 13 home runs, 47 RBI and two stolen bases. In his last 10 games, he is 14-for-40 (.350) with one home run and three RBI.
But one glaring hole in his game is plate discipline. It brings to mind an infamous incident during 2018 spring training, when Buck Showalter confronted Mountcastle about his low walk totals and was unhappy with the response he received:
“I said, ‘I noticed last year the whole season you walked 17 times. What was that all about?’” Showalter said. “He starts laughing and I said, ‘Understand, it’s not funny. This won’t work.’
So far in 2019, Mountcastle has only nine walks compared to 72 strikeouts. In 2018, his BB:SO was 26:79, in 2017 it was 17:96, in 2016 it was 25:95 and in 2015 it was 9:46.
It’s fair to question how Mountcastle’s free swinging ways would fit on the current roster. Right now, there is a steep drop-off in OBP among the regulars after Trey Mancini’s .356 mark and Pedro Severino’s .348. Obviously the O’s aren’t going anywhere this year, so in that sense, adding another low-OBP hitter isn’t going to really change anything. But how long can the Orioles perpetuate this low-OBP standard?
While plate discipline has always been a question throughout Mountcastle’s minor league career, his raw hitting ability has not been. Across parts of five seasons, Mountcastle owns a .292/.324/.460 batting line with an .785 OPS. In 2018 with Bowie, he hit .297 with 13 homers. In 2017 he hit .287 with 18 homers across two levels. In 2016, he hit .281 with 10 dingers and in 2015 he hit .296 across two levels.
But besides plate discipline, the other big question mark about the young slugger has been defense. He was originally drafted as a shortstop, but was quickly rotated between third and short his first couple years until 2018, when he played third base exclusively with the Baysox (81 games). So far this year with the Tides, he’s made nine appearances at third, 57 at first and one in the left.
Two nights ago Mountcastle made his first professional appearance in the outfield. He started in left field and hit fourth in an 8-4 loss to the Gwinnett Stripers. At the plate, he went 2-for-4 and in the field he had an outfield assist. In the top of the fifth, Stripers second baseman Andres Blanco tried to stretch a single into a double, but Mountcastle nabbed him on a throw to second baseman Engelb Vielma for the first out of the inning. Not a bad start to his outfield career.
The very next night, Mountcastle was hitting fourth again but back at first base. So it seems that the Orioles will be making this a gradual transition for Mountcastle in order to build up his versatility. But it also seems like a tactic that may enable him to get to Baltimore sooner, on account of there being a log jam at first base with Chris Davis, Trey Mancini and Renato Nunez. Not that there are currently any openings in the outfield either, but once again, versatility would make his inclusion on the 25-man roster more palatable.