One of the small number of benefits of being a rebuilding team is that it’s easier to offer an opportunity to former prospects who’ve never quite put it together in hopes that here and now is where and when they can finally make it click. One of those former top prospects, Jorge Mateo, was designated for assignment by the Padres earlier in the week. The Orioles took the opportunity to scoop Mateo off the waiver wire.
The cruel nature of baseball roster moves of this sort is that someone’s new opportunity is the end of someone else’s opportunity. To make room on the 40-man roster for Mateo, the Orioles designated Pat Valaika for assignment. The 28-year-old has played something of a super-utility role for the O’s over the last two seasons, batting a combined .228/.278/.362 over 123 games. That performance dipped substantially this year, with Valaika hitting just a .531 OPS.
Mateo, 26, was a Yankees international amateur signing out of the Dominican Republic all the way back in 2012, receiving a bonus of $225,000. He rode the Yankee prospect hype bus into top 50 prospect status, peaking at #26 on Baseball America’s top 100 list and #30 on MLB Pipeline’s top 100 list prior to the 2016 season. That was on the strength of his being a shortstop who hit .278/.345/.392 across the two full-season A-ball levels in the Yankees system in 2015, which was only Mateo’s age 20 season.
That prospect stock was enough to have Mateo be one of the pieces dangled to the Athletics when the Yankees acquired Sonny Gray in 2017. Mateo was OPSing .906 for New York’s Double-A affiliate, then in Trenton, at the time of the trade. Mateo never made it to MLB with Oakland, however, only debuting with San Diego last year after being acquired for a player to be named later.
Now being used mostly as an outfielder, the right-handed batting Mateo hit just .195/.235/.310 in a reserve role for the Padres over the past two seasons. His minor league options have been exhausted. The contending Padres needed to use the roster space on players contributing right now. And so the Orioles get a chance to turn this ex-prospect into something.
Valaika being designated seems like a good sign that the Orioles vision for Mateo is to step into the second base spot that Valaika has been occupying. Valaika started 46 games there, getting the majority of the playing time since mid-June.
The other guy who’d been getting some second base time lately, Domingo Leyba, was also designated by the Orioles this week. Or they could slide Ramón Urías to second base and let Mateo loose on shortstop. Or they could put Mateo on waivers again within the month, like when former top 10 pick Carson Fulmer was an Oriole for about 16 days last year. The fringe of a roster is always in motion.
Fans who’ve been clamoring for Jahmai Jones to be called up from Norfolk to second base might have preferred to see him. I had been figuring the end of Valaika’s time might be Jones time. It hasn’t worked out that way. Mateo, at least, is an interesting ex-prospect. Perhaps with regular playing time at one of his more natural infield positions, the O’s can help him unlock something. This is the kind of lottery ticket they should be buying.
In 2016, at the peak of his prospect value, Pipeline wrote of Mateo:
A true top-of-the-scale runner, Mateo can get from the right side of the plate to first base in less than 4.0 seconds and has basestealing skills to boot, succeeding on 83 percent of his attempts in his first four pro seasons. More than just a slap-and-dash guy, he has wiry strength and displays solid raw power during batting practice that has yet to manifest itself during games. He could develop into a 15-homer threat, though getting on base is a higher priority and he’ll need to tighten up his strike zone to do that.
The speed is not a joke. Mateo stole 82 bases in 117 games in 2015. 82 bases! The entire 2019 Orioles team stole 84 bases, and that was with Jonathan Villar bagging 40. The power never really showed up, except with a stop in the strange offense environment of the former Pacific Coast League in 2019, when Mateo hit .289/.330/.504 for the A’s Triple-A affiliate in Las Vegas.
We’ll get our first idea of what the O’s intend to do with Mateo when the lineup for Friday’s game is released and we see whether Mateo is in it and at what position if he is.