In recent weeks we have seen prominent organizations release their list of top prospects in Major League Baseball. For a team in a rebuilding situation like the Orioles, those lists are something that fans cling to for any semblance of hope. Unfortunately for those seeking hope, Ryan Mountcastle is not regarded as highly as he was a year ago. Baseball Prospectus ranked him at 57, while MLB Pipeline had him at 94. Baseball America left him off the list completely.
Seeing the International League MVP, who was five years younger than the average player in his league, fall off Baseball America’s list was a surprise to me. Everybody agrees that Mountcastle can hit. Yes, there are some concerns about his plate discipline (50 walks the last two seasons combined) and strikeouts (130 in 553 plate appearances last season). But slashing .312/.344/.527 with 25 home runs and 83 RBI is quite impressive. Most agree that his offensive game is nearly ready to be put to the test at the MLB level.
But Mountcastle has some well-documented trouble with his defense. In talking with MASN’s Steve Melewski, Baseball America’s J.J. Cooper indicated that this issue is the reason Mountcastle dropped off the top 100. “Really, it comes down to questions about his defense. As a hitter, he is a top 100 prospect. But the questions about his defense include: Where is he going to play?” He later added that “Every year that the defense question is not answered, the possibility it won’t be answered in a positive way gets larger.”
That last sentence made me think about the way that Mountcastle has been handled by the Orioles since being drafted as a shortstop with the 36th pick in the 2015 draft. Scouting reports at that time essentially say what they say now: he can hit but his fielding isn’t strong. Mountcastle first appeared on MLB Pipeline’s list of top O’s prospects in 2015 as a shortstop. His write-up indicates that he played plenty of third base on the showcase circuit and that most scouts “feel he’ll likely either end up at third base or in the outfield at the next level.” It was clear to his coaches on the showcase circuit and MLB scouts that Mountcastle did not project as a major league shortstop.
But Dan Duquette and the Orioles player development office kept Mountcastle at shortstop. He played 33 of his 39 games in 2015 there. Every inning he played in 2016 was there. He started making a transition to third base in 2017, but still played 82 games at shortstop. During this time, the scouting reports did not change. Mountcastle was considered a sub-par fielder, whose glove was holding back his more advanced bat. Yet the Orioles kept him at arguably the most important defensive position.
This is where my mind immediately jumped when reading Cooper saying that “every year that the defense question is not answered, the possibility it won’t be answered in a positive way gets larger.” The Orioles essentially wasted two of Mountcastle’s prime developmental years insisting he stay at shortstop when that clearly wasn’t going to work. An argument can be made that the club did the right thing; after all, if his defense came around they’d have a premium offensive talent at a traditionally defensive position. That point is understood, but wouldn’t they have noticed the lack of progress at some point during the 2016 season? Shouldn’t they have had a backup plan in place?
It was finally in 2018 when the Orioles joined the rest of the baseball world in realizing that Ryan Mountcastle would not be an MLB shortstop. He fully transitioned to the hot corner, and played that position exclusively that season.
Mike Elias replaced Duquette following that season and Mountcastle was then subject to the wishes of new talent evaluators and player development staff. After spending all of 2018 as a third baseman, Mountcastle played only nine games there last season. He served as Norfolk’s primary first baseman, appearing in 84 games there. The new regime also threw him a curveball: asking the life-long infielder to appear in left field 26 times.
It is obvious that Elias and his staff tried moving Mountcastle around in 2019 with the hopes that something stuck. We can’t really blame a new regime for doing that; they want to evaluate him properly and not rely on past scouting reports. After a full season of moving between the corner infield spots and left field, I hoped that the O’s would commit to developing Mountcastle’s defense as best as possible at one position with the goal of allowing him to hold his own in the majors.
That doesn’t appear to be the case. Speaking recently in Salisbury, Elias said that there are “questions to answer in terms of when is he going to be totally ready, a finished product, and where is he going to play on the field.” It doesn’t sound like Elias has made a decision. To complicate matters, the Orioles are considering asking their defensively-challenged prospect to learn two more positions. MLB.com reported in December that “Elias said recently that the club’s No. 4 prospect has seen his fielding program extend to right field, adding on Saturday that second base is also in play for the original corner infielder.”
From the day Mountcastle was drafted, it seems as though the Orioles have not put him in the best position to properly develop defensively and succeed. Here is a player who came into the organization with a reputation as a sub-par defender. Rather than develop a plan with reasonable expectations (devoting time and resources into making him the best possible corner infielder or outfielder), the club has provided no continuity and is now going to task him with learning second base and right field at a time when his bat is ready for the majors.
It is very possible that Mountcastle will prove adequate at one of these positions or simply move into a DH role in Baltimore. If he hits enough, he’ll find his way into the lineup. But the Orioles certainly have not made it easy on this young player trying to develop into a defender.