When you think of Orioles prospects, more than likely, your mind immediately jumps to the most high-profile, high-ceiling guys. Adley Rutschman, future centerpiece! Ryan Mountcastle, future slugger! Grayson Rodriguez, future ace!
Nobody ever thinks, “Oh, but who’s going to be the future utility infielder?”
I get it. There’s a reason the Clayton Kershaws and Mike Trouts of the world are a bigger deal than the Ryan Flahertys. But you know what? There’s no shame in being a utility infielder. Every team needs one. And some utility infielders are even homegrown!
The O’s have a few such candidates floating around in their system. So let’s take a look at two: Rylan Bannon and Mason McCoy.
The duo have some similarities. Both are Illinois natives. Both were 2017 draft picks. They played side-by-side at Double-A Bowie for much of the 2019 season, and rank back-to-back on MLB Pipeline’s top 30 Orioles prospects list (Bannon at 23, McCoy at 24). And both have just enough going for them that they could make the majors, but not enough going for them that they’re expected to be everyday players. Their options, it seems, are utility infielder or bust.
Bannon is the younger of the two (by 13 months), a 23-year-old who finished the season at Triple-A Norfolk after spending most of it at Bowie. You may recognize him as one of the five players the O’s acquired from the Dodgers in the 2018 Manny Machado trade. At the time of the swap, the former 2017 eighth-round pick from Xavier had 20 homers in 89 games for High-A Rancho Cucamonga, ranking as the Dodgers’ No. 27 prospect, and the Birds immediately moved him up to Double-A upon his acquisition.
Bannon didn’t fare so well at his new level. He batted just .204 with a .671 OPS and two homers in 32 games for the Baysox the rest of that year.
Given another crack at Bowie this season, though, Bannon found his footing. He slashed .255/.345/.394 with eight homers and 42 RBIs in 110 games and served as a spark plug in the Baysox lineup. Defensively, he split time between third base and second base, starting 64 games at the former and 37 at the latter.
The hot corner has emerged as Bannon’s strongest position. Bowie play-by-play broadcaster Adam Pohl told BaltimoreBaseball.com in August, “He’s an outstanding defensive third baseman. He’s got a really good arm. He’s so quick side to side.” Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that Bannon exclusively played third base in all 20 of his games after the O’s promoted him to Norfolk in mid-August. He committed five errors, but minor league error statistics aren’t a particularly insightful way to evaluate defense.
Bannon’s bat took off in the International League, which used the same baseballs as in the majors. He hit .317/.344/.549 with three homers and 17 RBIs. Bannon, in all likelihood, is ticketed for a longer look at Norfolk next year, and the undersized infielder — generously listed at 5-foot-10 — doesn’t offer the upside of an everyday big league player. But if he continues to combine a capable bat with strong defense, he may well make his big league debut next summer.
While Bannon was a somewhat recognizable prospect before 2019, the same can’t be said for McCoy, who came from obscurity to put himself onto the prospect scene this season.
McCoy, the Orioles’ sixth-round draft pick out of the University of Iowa in 2017, played well that season for short-season Aberdeen (.301/.382/.409 in 53 games) but failed to distinguish himself after a nondescript 2018 campaign at Low-A Delmarva. McCoy batted .266/.331/.369 — not bad for an everyday shortstop, but not the kind of numbers that would make you think he’s big league-bound.
And, to be honest, the odds are still against it. But McCoy certainly made a better case for himself in 2019, when he suddenly starting hitting everything in sight...for three months, at least.
Opening the season with High-A Frederick, McCoy simply couldn’t be retired. He stroked two hits on Opening Day and was off to the races. By his 27th and final game with the Keys, McCoy held a .379 batting average and a .416 OBP, and even his slugging percentage — normally not his calling card — was an impressive .509, thanks to nine doubles and two home runs in 125 PAs. McCoy had as many games with three or more hits (five) as games in which he was held hitless. In his final week at Frederick, he racked up a pair of four-hit performances.
In May, the Orioles promoted McCoy, who at 24 was a bit old for Frederick, to the more age-appropriate Double-A. Early on, his hot hitting continued apace; McCoy smacked 10 hits in his first four games for Bowie. More than a month into his Eastern League endeavor, McCoy had showed few signs of cooling down, batting .335 with a .394 OBP by June 27.
But cool down he did. In fact, nearly the entire second half brought an extended slump for McCoy, who posted a .222/.532 average and OPS in July followed by a .220/.576 mark in August. Overall for Bowie, he batted .266 with a .669 OPS.
So which version was, to borrow an expression, the real McCoy? The first-half scorcher, or the late-season slumper? The answer, as is often the case, is probably somewhere in between. What McCoy does consistently offer, according to his MLB Pipeline bio, is plus defense at shortstop: “He’s fundamentally sound there, showing good range, soft hands and a strong arm, as well as consistency that has long impressed evaluators.” McCoy also has ample experience at second base, with 58 career starts there.
McCoy’s second-half slide could prompt the Orioles to give him more time at Bowie to begin 2020. As with Bannon, his upside is limited, especially if he can’t recapture the magic that led to his early-season hitting explosion. Still, his defense alone could put him in the utility infield conversation in the next couple of years.
You won’t find the next Mike Trout, or probably even the next Hanser Alberto, in Bannon or McCoy. But that’s OK. If all goes well, one or both of these guys can find a way to contribute to the next winning Orioles team.