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For former top prospect Ryan Mountcastle, the future has arrived

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The highly-touted hitter made his debut in the majors this season, and thrived for an Orioles team that outperformed expectations.

Baltimore Orioles v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Orioles fans had been waiting for Ryan Mountcastle’s arrival. We longed for it. Clamored for it. Pleaded for it.

This year, we got it. And it’s hard not to like what we saw.

The team’s fifth-ranked prospect going into this season, Mountcastle made his big league debut on Aug. 21, and he quickly went to work proving that the bat that zipped him through the minor league levels translated to the majors as well. Mountcastle finished with a .333 batting average in 126 at-bats over 35 games, hitting five home runs and driving in 23 runs.

Mountcastle had been showing at each step of his professional career that he could hit. After being drafted in the first round out of high school in 2015, he hit .314 at high A Frederick in 2017, .297 at Double-A Bowie in 2018, and then .312 with 25 home runs, 35 doubles and an .871 OPS at Triple-A Norfolk in 2019.

So it’s easy to see why the call-up had been anticipated for a while. And it went as well as could be expected, as Mountcastle both showed the power he’d been developing in the minors in Baltimore with an .878 OPS.

The hope was always that Mountcastle would hit, and the expectation was that he would get a chance to contribute with this team, both given his success to this point and the loss of Trey Mancini for the season due to cancer treatment. He wasn’t so much under pressure to produce, there was just a hope that his seasoning in the minor leagues would flatten the learning curve and make it easier for him to find his groove against big league pitching as the year went on.

Last year’s International League Player of the Year had a new element to his game ready for the big leagues, however. Mountcastle showed a discipline at the plate he hadn’t had in earlier years, drawing 11 walks in 140 plate appearances — he only had 24 in 553 the year before in Norfolk — and compiling a .386 on-base percentage. That’s hardly a Bonds-esque rate for drawing walks, but it allowed him to post an on-base percentage 42 points higher than any he’d had at A ball or better.

The other big question about Mountcastle was his defense, as he had logged 226 minor league games at shortstop, 130 at third base, 84 at first base and only 26 in the outfield, where it seemed the Orioles wanted to put him. That issue solved itself as well; Mountcastle played 25 games in the outfield and didn’t make a single error, acquitting himself well as the season progressed.

The timing of this all was perfect as the Orioles spent the majority of the season hanging around in the wild card chase, and Mountcastle quickly went from being a rookie trying to get the hang of the majors to being one of the team’s key middle of the order bats. From Aug. 30-Sept. 14, a span of 15 games, Mountcastle batted .396 (21-for-53) and hit all five of his home runs, compiling a 1.158 OPS as the O’s fought to keep their playoff hopes alive. For the season, he batted .343 with runners in scoring position (including .417 with two outs). In what Baseball-Reference.com labels “high leverage” situations, Mountcastle had 14 hits in 26 at-bats for a .538 batting average.

That’s a drawn-out way of saying: Mountcastle was pretty good. And in crucial spots and clutch situations, he was even better.

That’s not to say the year was perfect. There’s a reason I cut off that sample two paragraphs earlier at Sept. 14; from Sept. 15 until the end of the season, Mountcastle batted .286, but he slugged only a paltry .306. Not good, and it could be due to a list of factors. Perhaps the magic wore off. Perhaps pitchers got word of his weaknesses. Or perhaps Mountcastle wasn’t immune from the slump that afflicted the entire team in the closing games of the season.

Nevertheless, it was a smashing success for Mountcastle, and one of the most encouraging performances by an Orioles prospect in years. Mountcastle is the first of the crop of prospects expected to form the core of the next winner in Baltimore to make the majors, and now that he’s proven he can hit big league pitching, there don’t seem to be any obstacles in the way of his having a permanent spot in the Orioles’ lineup. He’ll also have it a while; Mountcastle is under team control through 2026, and he should be in the batting order well after Adley Rutschman, D.L. Hall and Grayson Rodriguez and the rest of the bunch have made their debuts.

The future is coming for those players. For Mountcastle, however, it’s finally here.