The Orioles are off to an incredibly hot start to the season—sitting second in the American League—and are coming off an April where they won their most games in a month since 2016. Perhaps the player that best epitomizes this blazing-fast start to the 2023 season is shortstop Jorge Mateo. The O’s speedster currently sits second among all American League players with a 1.6 WAR. He’s continued to display his trademark blend of speed and defense, as he ranks second in the AL with 10 stolen bases and has already racked up two Defensive Runs Saved.
However, Mateo’s dominance extended beyond the field and basepaths in the first month of the season. The Baltimore shortstop slashed .353/.403/.647 with 10 extra-base hits and 16 RBIs. For context, during Mateo’s hottest month in 2022, he slashed .277/.327/.489 with 11 extra-base hits and 17 RBIs. In many ways, Mateo just completed the best month of his Orioles career.
Perhaps this type of outburst shouldn’t be seen as a surprise. Mateo possesses the rare combination of speed and strength only seen in the MLB’s biggest superstars. After all, this is the same Mateo that once ranked above Aaron Judge on the Yankees’ list of prospects. Before arriving in Baltimore, he had never had the opportunity to show off these tools on a consistent basis. When Mateo had his first opportunity as a full-time starter last year, he had spurts of athletic brilliance but didn’t make enough contact to pose a consistent threat.
Through 27 games this season, Mateo has completely changed his offensive profile. His expected batting average has jumped from the 16th percentile in 2022 to the 92nd percentile in 2023. The shortstop has also significantly increased his hard-hit rate while lowering his strikeout percentage and whiff rate.
Mateo is still not one to take many walks and chases pitches a bit too often, but when you’re making consistent, hard contact, those things tend not to matter. All in all, Mateo is showing all of the tools that have made shortstops like Trea Turner, Fernando Tatis and Xander Bogaerts some of the best players in all of baseball.
And yet, this presents a bit of a dilemma. Mateo is playing the best all-around shortstop Baltimore has seen since early-2000s Miguel Tejada. It seems like the only appropriate response to this kind of play is trying to get Mateo as many at-bats as possible. And, for the time being, that is true.
However, if you look at the way that Mike Elias & Co. have built up this organization, it’s pretty clear that “Jorge Mateo emerging as the best SS in the AL” was not on their bingo card. This Orioles’ regime has assembled and organizational depth chart teeming with shortstop talent.
Joey Ortiz was recently given his first shot at the majors—and it surely won’t be his last this season. Jordan Westburg is demolishing baseballs on the regular for Norfolk and also seems on the verge of an MLB call-up. César Prieto leads the Eastern League with 27 hits and a .355. Then there’s 2022 No. 1 overall pick Jackson Holliday, who is currently rocketing up the O’s system and looks like he’ll push for an MLB debut before he can legally drink a Natty Boh.
In assembling all this middle infield talent, it seems the front office was planning for a line of succession at shortstop that saw Mateo vacate the position after a relatively short stint. After all, when he came to Baltimore, Mateo had just been waived by the Padres and was looking for his third team in a little over a year. The Orioles were buying low on a talented player who had, up until that point, not shown the ability to stick on a major league roster. Fast forward 20 months, and that buy-low move has turned into the best shortstop in the American League.
As such, the Orioles are staring down the dilemma of what to do with their glut of infield prospects now that there’s one less easily replaceable player in their infield. We’ve already seen Brandon Hyde move last year’s Gold Glove winner Ramón Urías off of third base in order to get super prospect Gunnar Henderson regular playing time. However, when Ortiz made his major league debut it came at second base instead of short due to the presence of Mateo.
The dilemma now facing the Orioles' front office is this: how do the Orioles continue to allow Jorge Mateo to shine without turning him into a player who constantly blocks the wealth of prospects they’ve so carefully developed? While moving Ortiz, Westburg and Prieto around between third, short and second seems like the best plan in the immediate future, the arrival of Holliday on the horizon complicates matters. The 19-year-old is demonstrating the kind of potential star power that we saw with Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson throughout their time in the minors. To move him off of a premium defensive position like shortstop in favor of second base would feel like a waste of some of Holliday’s continually blossoming talent.
No. 1 overall draft pick Jackson Holliday showing off the RANGE at short!— Farm To Fame (@FarmToFame_) February 25, 2023
However, the same could be said for this version of Mateo. While an OPS over 1.000 will play at any position, it’s undeniable that what makes Mateo special is the wizardry his athleticism allows him to pull off at shortstop. Yes, one potential option for the eventual advent of the Jackson Holliday era is to move Mateo into the outfield. Before arriving in Baltimore, Matoe played 176 innings across all three outfield spots. Spreading he and Cedric Mullins across CF and LF in Camden Yards would give the Orioles plenty of speed to cover the cavernous left-center alley, while also adding another plus arm to the outfield in Mateo.
However, this scenario begs the question of whether Mateo could replicate the defensive value he provides at shortstop while playing CF or LF. Also, you have to ask if the consistency that comes from lining up at the same position every game—instead of constantly migrating around the diamond—is one of the keys to Mateo’s exponential growth as an Oriole. No other team gave him the opportunity to be an everyday shortstop. The Orioles did and are now reaping the benefits as Mateo explodes into a potential star.
If Mateo continues to hit even close to his current rate for the next couple of seasons, this dilemma between him, Holliday and the other Baby Bird middle infielders is a great problem to have. But as Birdland continues to watch Mateo rocket toward stardom, we have to remind ourselves that this wasn’t part of the original plan. Perhaps it is this deviation from Mateo, though, that will allow the Orioles to continue to get closer to their goals of contention much sooner than expected.
Who has the most long term upside of current Orioles shortstops?
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