Not every player that takes part in a full-scale rebuild is created equal. For every Chance Sisco or Pat Valaika there is a Jonathan Villar and a José Iglesias. But for those players that do find success it is normal to wonder if that player is part of the solution, or just the best of a subpar bunch.
In some cases, that answer is rather obvious. There was little doubt, even at the time, that Villar, Iglesias, Freddy Galvis, and the like were just stopgap options. Routinely signing a cheap veteran player with a plan to flip them for a modest return makes some sense for a team looking to build up their minor league ranks. But the Orioles went a different route at the shortstop position this season, turning to former top prospect Jorge Mateo.
Mateo came to Baltimore via an August waiver claim last summer. He impressed over a 32-game sample in which he posted a 103 OPS+ while showing off some of the best wheels in the game before a back injury ended his season. Even still, it was enough to put him atop the depth chart at shortstop entering 2022, an opportunity he has run with.
The batting line is not particularly impressive. Through 47 games, Mateo is slashing .218/.250/.352 while walking just 3.4% of the time along with a strikeout rate of 29.9%. Each of those numbers is a step back from his cameo last year. But he is tapping into his power more often, already hitting three home runs, nine doubles, and two triples. Overall, it’s not atrocious for a shortstop batting at the bottom of the order.
Mateo makes the most of his time on base, though. His 13 stolen bases are tied for second in MLB, and he has been thrown out just once, a 92.9% success rate. It helps that he is just as fast as he was a season ago. His 30.3 feet per second foot speed is second in all of baseball, behind only Bobby Witt Jr. All of that contributes to his 12th-ranked 2.2 BsR, a FanGraphs metric that attributes value to base-running.
On top of that, he has been a pleasant surprise in the field. His eight errors and .961 fielding percentage look rough, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Mateo has shown impressive range, getting to balls up the middle and in the gap far more often than you would expect. According to Statcast, this has made him a three outs above average shortstop. In other words, he may flub some routine plays, but he makes up for it with outstanding range and recording outs that other shortstops wouldn’t even have the chance to make.
You cannot deny Mateo’s skillset. Speed catches the eye, and when harnessed it is a force on the baseball field. It’s easy to understand why he was a highly regarded prospect in the Yankees system at one point in time.
It is these skills that have made Mateo into a 1.4 bWAR player for the Orioles this season. That is third on the team behind Austin Hays (1.7 bWAR) and Trey Mancini (1.4 bWAR) and ahead of Cedric Mullins (1.3 bWAR). That is an impressive pace that would make him a 4+ bWAR player over a full season. Finding that level of player on the waiver wire is not an easy task, and should be celebrated when it happens.
Of course, success in the present does not guarantee success in the future. So have Mateo’s recent triumphs changed the Orioles plans at all long term?
For now, Mateo’s success has limited calls from the fanbase to see Gunnar Henderson or Jordan Westburg in the big leaguers sooner rather than later. That is a good thing! Not because Mike Elias would have relented to pressure from folks on Twitter, but because it means the Orioles have both a fun player in the majors and exciting options coming up through the minors.
Beyond that, it’s fully up to Mateo on what comes next. He turns 27 later this month and would not be due to hit free agency until after the 2025 season. That would align the Orioles competitive window along with Mateo’s capabilities just fine. But competition for playing time will also heat up in that time.
Henderson, Westburg, César Prieto, and Joey Ortiz are all likely to be pounding on the major league door within the next year. Not to mention the inevitable signing of Carlos Correa. Holding onto the starting shortstop role in Baltimore isn’t going to be easy.
If he does want to stick as a starter, the bat will need to improve, at least a little bit. Even if he is buried at the bottom of the lineup, it is tough to absorb a strikeout rate near 30% when it doesn’t come paired with a power bat. Based on what he has done to this point in his career, that could be asking a lot.
However, it does not have to be “starter or bust” for Mateo. He has a ton of attributes that make him an attractive reserve option on a competitive team. He has the speed and base-running ability to pinch run. He has played major league innings at every position but first base, pitcher, and catcher. And although the sample size is small, he doesn’t seem to struggle at the plate when he comes in as a sub (.657 career OPS) versus when he starts (.620 OPS).
And of course there is the ever-present possibility surrounding decent players on bad teams; a trade. But that doesn’t seem to make sense for Mateo, at least not right now. A late-blooming toolsy position player with a limited track record isn’t going to be the most lucrative trade chip, and the Orioles have little reason to deal him unless they feel an obvious upgrade at the position is ready. That isn’t the case just yet.
Mateo is providing more value to the Orioles than could have reasonably been expected when he was plucked off waivers from the Padres less than a year ago. It’s not enough to say he is the team’s long-term answer to their shortstop quandary. But it is enough to think that he could be a contributor—all over the diamond and base paths—for quite a while in Birdland.