This article is part of the Know Your Orioles 40-man series, which features an article about each of the 38 players currently on the Orioles roster. There will be one every weekday until we run out of players.
More than a decade ago, the Yankees signed Jorge Mateo as an amateur out of the Dominican Republic for a modest $225,000 bonus. He’s gone on a journey since then, pushing his way into the top 50 prospects in the game and headlining a trade for a former All-Star. His new team never called him up and eventually traded him for a player to be named later. That third team dropped him on waivers last year, where he was snatched up by the rebuilding Orioles.
That’s a long way down from a player who seemed like the Yankees shortstop of the future at one time. An old MLB Pipeline Yankees list had Mateo at the top of the system, ahead of even Aaron Judge. That’s probably because all the way back in 2015, the speedy Mateo stole 82 bases in 117 games between Low-A and High-A, and at that time, scouts were predicting he could be a 15-homer guy at the MLB level, with enough defensive ability to stick at shortstop.
High-upside players always catch the eyes of scouts. Yet Mateo is also something of a cautionary tale for prospect hype. Some guys never live up to the hype, no matter how many people were sure they were going to be perennial All-Stars or even just capable big league regulars. It’s likely that more than one current Orioles top prospect will meet the same fate, just because that’s how it goes with prospects.
The fact that Mateo was available to the 2021 Orioles as a waiver claim is all one needs to know to realize that Mateo has not yet put all of this potential together. Each team he has been with has valued him progressively less as time has gone by and he has not reached that imagined upside. Mateo batted .195/.235/.310 at the MLB level with the Padres before going on waivers, and so he came to the 110-loss Orioles. He stunk just enough to find his way here.
The Orioles are exactly the sort of team that should be giving one last chance to a 26-year-old once-prospect whose star had long since fallen. Prior to Mateo’s arrival, they were giving infield playing time to guys like Rio Ruiz and Stevie Wilkerson, who never had the kind of envisioned upside as Mateo and were not performing acceptably.
In 32 games after arriving with the Orioles, Mateo split playing time close to evenly between second base and shortstop. He played close to daily from his first game until inflammation developed in his lumbar in mid-September, which shut him down the rest of the day. Given regular big league starts for the first time ever, Mateo responded well, hitting .280/.328/.421 as an Oriole.
Orioles fans watched a number of Orioles players hit a lot worse than that in the 2021 season. Several of them were infielders. In that light, it was interesting performance. This is also a small sample size, and it’s not that great: An OPS+ of 102, or 2% better than league average as a hitter.
The big problem with just assuming that Mateo’s 2021 Orioles batting can be equaled effortlessly is that he had a batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .359 as an Oriole. A player who has speed like Mateo might be able to squeeze out a higher BABIP than the average player by virtue of beating out more infield hits or being more able to pull off a bunt base hit.
Even so, there was probably a lot of good luck involved in a .359 BABIP. If that luck evens out and nothing else improves, there won’t be many Mateo jerseys sold at Camden Yards, and fans will instead be anxiously eyeing the progress of infield prospects like Jordan Westburg and Gunnar Henderson instead.
Although the Orioles do have six other 40-man roster players who’ll be competing for non-first base infield spots, the only one of these guys whose 2021 performance makes him a lock is Ramón Urias. Rougned Odor also seems ticketed for a spot based on past 30-homer seasons. That seems to leave two MLB roster spots for Mateo, Kelvin Gutierrez, and Jahmai Jones.
With Gutierrez and Mateo both being out of options, that should give them the edge to get the initial roster spots. How playing time will be divvied up among this group probably depends on whether all of them stay healthy and then who looks like he has the most potential to eventually not suck for a better Orioles team.
Most likely, none of the above will find their way onto that team. Until the prospects arrive, the Mateos of the world are the kinds of players Orioles fans will be watching. On the off chance that Mateo does turn into something, he won’t be a free agent until after the 2025 season.
End-of-season prediction: Though I don’t have much hopes for Mateo to be on the next good Orioles team, we can all be fairly certain that team is not arriving this year. There’s still plenty of room for placeholder tryout guys in spots where there’s not a lot of existing big league talent or near-MLB-ready prospect depth.
Mateo has enough past prospect pedigree and current versatility that he should at least make it to year’s end on the major league roster, even if that’s “only” as a utility infielder or even a super-utility player who occasionally pinch runs or mans an outfield spot.
Previously: Previously: Félix Bautista, Logan Gillaspie, Isaac Mattson, Cionel Pérez, Bryan Baker, Rougned Odor, Joey Krehbiel, Tyler Nevin, Kyle Bradish, Rylan Bannon, Yusniel Díaz, Kelvin Gutiérrez, Kevin Smith, Terrin Vavra, D.L. Hall, Jahmai Jones, Bruce Zimmermann, Mike Baumann, Ryan McKenna, Dean Kremer, Keegan Akin, Jorge López, Ramón Urías, Dillon Tate, Paul Fry, Zac Lowther, Alexander Wells, Cole Sulser
Tomorrow: Tanner Scott