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Newcomer Isaac Mattson an intriguing Rule 5 case for the Orioles this offseason

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Acquired in the Dylan Bundy trade with the Angels, the right-hander has seen success at all minor league levels, but the O’s face a choice with him this offseason.

Glendale Desert Dogs v. Mesa Solar Sox Photo by Buck Davidson/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The Orioles are in need of pitchers, both homegrown and acquired, to come up and secure spots in the big league staff in the years ahead.

Whether Isaac Mattson will be one of those pitchers or not is a question we should get an answer to pretty quickly.

Mattson was acquired in the Dylan Bundy trade with the Los Angeles Angels in December, but thanks to the coronavirus, he didn’t see any action with his new organization. Mattson was sent to Double-A Bowie, but never got a chance this season to make his big-league debut with the Orioles.

That chance could be coming soon, however. Mattson, 25, was an important part of that Bundy deal, as his career minor league performance indicates. The 2015 19th-round pick out of Pittsburgh (where he went 4-1 with a 3.47 ERA in 60 appearances) had his first full season in the minor leagues in 2018, and compiled a 7-4 record and 3.82 ERA over 25 appearances (11 starts) at both low-A and high-A ball.

In 2019, Mattson faced stiffer competition and responded well, going 6-3 with a 2.33 ERA over eight appearances at high-A, 24 in Double-A and five in Triple-A. At Double-A Mobile he was impressive, pitching exclusively out of the bullpen and going 3-3 with a 2.68 ERA. He showcased the all-important ability to miss bats, striking out 61 in 43.2 innings while walking only 13 for a 0.985 WHIP.

Mattson only spent a small amount of time in Triple-A last year, posting a 3.86 ERA in 9.1 innings, but the evidence suggests he’s ready to start the season in Triple-A, and potentially make his Orioles debut some time in 2021.

If he’s still with the organization, that is.

The O’s will have to decide by Nov. 20 whether or not to protect Mattson from Rule 5 draft selection, which would require putting him on the 40-man roster. According to Nathan Ruiz of the Baltimore Sun, that’s a move general manager Mike Elias will be considering.

It’s a crowded picture, however, and Elias’s decision is made all the more difficult by not having had the chance to see Mattson pitching in the Orioles’ farm system. There are 35 players on the 40-man roster now, and Ruiz’s article pointed out that spots are assured or all-but-assured to Michael Baumann and Yusniel Diaz.

That tightens the race even further, and there are still players like Rylan Bannon, Zac Lowther, Zach Pop, Mason McCoy and Alexander Wells who are in the mix for those remaining spots. And of all those names, Mattson is the only one whom the Orioles haven’t seen play for one of their clubs.

Of course, the Orioles can also cut from the roster to make more slots available, and Mattson is someone Elias went out and acquired, so he’s likely interested in seeing what a near-finished minor league pitcher can do with the big club. Mattson’s arsenal is led by his fastball, which can reach 95 miles an hour, and he’s working on further developing a slider and changeup to get a big league repertoire.

“I think the biggest thing for me is getting those off-speed pitches commanded and making sure they’re as nasty as they can be,” Mattson said in a radio interview. “For me it’s getting that off-speed where it needs to be as far as the movement goes and then being able to command it in any pitch, any count.”

If Mattson makes it through the Rule 5 draft process, it’s hard to imagine the Orioles trying to turn him into a starter. He only started one game in college, and those 11 starts he made in 2018 were the only ones he’s made in the pros. If he continues on his track as a reliever, his ability to make batters work for their hits — he gave up only 6.2 per nine in Double-A in 2019 — could serve him well at higher levels. Perhaps even the Orioles.

Elias brought Mattson here. It’s up to him to ensure whether or not he stays.