Usually, when one evaluates the depth at a position going forward, one looks at the usual areas. Who’s on the current major league roster that could be back next year? Who’s coming up through the pipeline that could add another horse to the race?
And sometimes, it’s someone without a lot of fanfare who shows up, seemingly from out of nowhere, and leaves you scratching your head and wondering where he came from and why you hadn’t heard of him before.
Such just might be the case with Jorge Mateo, who is only 11 at-bats into his Orioles career, but who is certainly showing some flashes of a game that would work pretty well in the near future at Camden Yards.
The 26-year-old Mateo went into Monday having played only three games with Baltimore and had 11 at-bats, but he’s done enough in that narrow window to turn some heads. He has a double and a triple among three hits, and he has two stolen bases. He’s scored a pair of runs, and if the Orioles had anything resembling a bullpen he might have helped lead them to a victory against the Rays. Not blow-you-away stuff, but not something you just forget, either.
Even in the limited sample, Mateo has turned some heads and made some headlines. MLB.com called his presence “lightning” in a loss. The Baltimore Sun was on it too, praising Mateo’s effect on the game and pointing out that “the tools Mateo has shown in his first three games with Baltimore make him unique among the nearly 30 players who have arrived via the waiver wire.”
Mateo was only selected from waivers on Aug. 5 and came from the Padres, with whom he batted .195 over 79 games in two years. He’s a true utility man, having played all positions except catcher and first base.
Those stats don’t suggest he’s someone to take seriously going forward, but that’s hardly precluded players from getting a shot and making a home in Baltimore. Robert Andino had posted averages of .159, .167 and .206 with the Marlins before being traded to the Orioles in 2009, and he proved to be a great fit while spending the next four years here.
Hanser Alberto had hit .222, .143 and .185 in three seasons as a Texas Ranger when he came to Baltimore in 2019; a .305 season followed as Alberto spent the year as one of the American League’s best contact hitters.
All of this is to say that if Mateo can keep this up the rest of the way, he shouldn’t be disregarded as someone who could be in the mix for second base, shortstop, or third base next season. Maikel Franco will be a free agent after this season, so third base will be open, and neither shortstop nor second base will have sure-fire incumbents going into next year. Players like Richie Martin and Jahmai Jones could be favorites, but we’re not talking catcher and Adley Rutschman here.
Mateo has given the impression before that something like this could be coming. He played a full Triple-A slate in 2019 with Oakland’s Las Vegas affiliate, and hit .289 with 19 home runs and an .834 OPS. With that on his minor league track record, Mateo becomes all the more credible as a player, and even easier to project as a 2022 starter.
The other reason Mateo should be in the mix, other than the fact that the team will be looking for players to step up and take these positions and prove they can handle them, is his profile. Mateo’s speed makes him an unusual commodity, and a welcome change from players who swing from the heels, try to hit homers and are not as impactful when the ball is in play. As MLB.com’s Joe Trezza wrote, Mateo isn’t just fast, he’s blindingly fast. Fastest-player-in-the-league fast.
Speed kills, or at the very least, it changes things. Mateo proved that in one of the losses to the Rays. Mateo smacked a double into the right field corner, putting a runner in scoring position for Martin. Mateo then stole third — how many other current Orioles would you trust to steal third? — and his burst forced Mike Zunino to rush his throw down. It sailed into the outfield, and Mateo got to jog home. The run was in, and Martin didn’t even have to swing the bat.
That’s the value of speed, and hopefully Mike Elias and the rest of the Orioles front office was watching that and liking what they were seeing. How could they not? When your team is dealing with a real talent issue at the MLB level, players who can do most of the job themselves are all the more valuable.
Of course, the onus is on Mateo to keep making his case. If, say, his average is below .200 when the season ends, then the Orioles will likely look elsewhere. Speed doesn’t matter so much if you can’t hack it everywhere else.
But if Mateo can keep this impressive demonstration going, the Orioles shouldn’t dismiss it as a mirage from someone they called up just because they needed a body in another 100-loss season. The Gunnar Hendersons and Jordan Westburgs aren’t ready yet, and the O’s have some infield spots that are open for the taking. They may have just found a good fit right off of the scrap pile.