A lot of years and a lot of dollars went into this year’s “big four” crop of free agent shortstops: Xander Bogaerts, Carlos Correa, Dansby Swanson, and Trea Turner. Four teams laid out the cash for one of those guys and now they’re set, or they hope to be. Others who pursued them and came away empty-handed must turn elsewhere.
That’s where the Orioles could come in. The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported that the O’s are “receiving inquiries” on shortstop Jorge Mateo that started up almost as soon as Swanson signed and the market was wrapped up. This does not mean anything will happen. It’s worth noting that the phrasing of the rumor is clearly other teams initiating contact, rather than something where the Orioles are actively exploring trades or aggressively shopping Mateo or any other player.
Before the signing of Adam Frazier, the Orioles seemed to be set to have an infield with Gunnar Henderson at third, Mateo playing short, Ramón Urías at second, and Ryan Mountcastle at first. Frazier’s signing for $8 million seems to point to his being more than a utility player who will get spot starts. Add in Triple-A infield prospects Connor Norby, Joey Ortiz, and Jordan Westburg and that’s a crowded field.
Something is going to have to give. The Orioles are surely aware of this, even if their thinking about what exactly to do about it is completely opaque to us. Other teams can surely see this as well as a fan can. Small wonder they’re inquiring about Mateo. He’s probably not the only one on whom they’re receiving interest, just the only one where that interest has filtered to Rosenthal.
At the recent winter meetings, Mike Elias addressed the idea of making major leaguer-for-major leaguer trades:
We’ve brainstormed stuff with other teams where it’s a major leaguer for major leaguer trade ... I think it makes it a little bit harder in our situation because our goal this year is to increase our odds of making it into the playoffs, and if we’re taking guys off our major league team, kind of bites into that. But we’ve definitely entertained those types of discussions when it comes to starting pitchers.
After a number of years of moves that actively seemed to make the team worse - including this year’s sell-high trades of Jorge López and Trey Mancini that were unpopular initially - it’s nice that there’s finally some public acknowledgement from Elias that they need to be careful about further subtractions. It’s also nice to see there’s some willingness to explore shoring up a weakness by dealing out of their presumed surplus.
Now that the Orioles have fielded a decent team in 2022, we’d all like to see a team at least that good in 2023. Trading someone away for prospects should be right out from here on. Trading someone away for a big league starting pitcher would be different, as long as that starting pitcher is a lot better than the dopes that Elias’s predecessor acquired, and for that matter better than the ones that Elias has thus far signed.
Though Mateo was a poor hitter last season, batting just .221/.267/.379 for the season, he created a lot of value with his speed and with his Gold Glove-caliber (even if the dummies didn’t give him the award) defense. bWAR judged his contributions at 3.4 wins; fWAR put him a little lower, at 2.8.
With 2023’s new incoming rules putting limits on shifts, as well as slightly larger bases and limits on pitchers throwing to first, it seems like Mateo is poised to continue adding value with everything other than his bat.
The Orioles front office is going to have to think long and hard about who’s going to be able to duplicate their 2022 performance and who isn’t. Not every player who enjoys a breakout MLB season is able to reach those same heights again. There is a decent chance one of Mateo and Urías will not exceed 2 WAR in 2023, let alone 3. With Urías getting pushed off the position where he won the Gold Glove, I’m tempted to say he’s the more likely regression candidate, but I don’t know anything.
At the same time, not every prospect is going to make it. One or maybe more of Ortiz, Norby, and Westburg isn’t going to cut it, and teams won’t figure that out until they get to MLB and they can’t hit like fans are currently dreaming. For both the MLB and prospect groups, some will never have more value than they do right now. The fortunes of the Orioles in 2023 and beyond depend on correctly figuring out which is which.
Rosenthal’s colleague at The Athletic, Keith Law, thinks that the Orioles are “sitting on a small gold mine” with their shortstop crop. Law is a big believer in Ortiz, so his perspective that Mateo is the guy it makes sense to trade away doesn’t surprise me. He also thinks other teams that seem to have pitching on the market should try to acquire Ortiz, specifically mentioning the Marlins and Pablo López.
I don’t envy Elias and company that choice. People like me will be primed to be cranky if it doesn’t work out. People much more inclined to knee-jerk reactions than me will be cranky if it doesn’t immediately work out coming out of the gate in the 2023 season. That’s why he gets the big bucks. All I can say is that whether the Orioles stand pat with their current roster or deal guys away with the hope of strengthening it, I hope that it works out, because they’ve never won the World Series in my lifetime and I’d like that to change some day soon.