The question was purely hypothetical and about two months premature, but Trey Mancini did not hesitate.
Given the choice between joining one of the odds-on playoff teams later in the season or sticking out a multi-year rebuilding project that could feature several more losing seasons, he said this weekend that it wouldn’t even be a tough decision.
“I want to be here,’’ he said, even before the question had fully landed.
Of course, Mancini won’t have a say in his future with the team unless the O’s offer him a long-term contract that locks him up through his arbitration years and some of his free agent eligibility, something that doesn’t seem likely at a time when new general manager Mike Elias figures to use whatever valuable assets he can muster to build a new foundation of young talent.
And, as valuable assets go around here, Mancini would appear to be at the top of the list.
That’s why it’s fair for fans and the media to debate whether he’ll still be around in late June or July, because it’s entirely possible that he won’t.
There is a case to be made that it would make little sense to go to salary arbitration with him each of the next three offseasons if he’s going to be earning all that money while the team is still in development.
There is also a case to be made that Mancini, 27, is fast becoming the face of the franchise and he’s still a young player by just about any standard. In a period of sharply declining attendance, it might make sense to hold onto the only homegrown, cornerstone position player still on the roster.
So, given again the hypothetical possibility of playing the second half of this season for, say, the Los Angeles Dodgers or sticking around for what likely will be another 100-plus losses, Mancini was even more adamant.
“If those are my two choices, I love Baltimore,’’ he said. “I love playing here, and I think there would be nothing cooler than to be here throughout the rebuild — however long it takes — and to kind of come out the other side. I would love nothing more than for that to happen.”
OK, now you’re saying to yourself, “What else is the kid going to say when faced with that question?”
Fair point. He couldn’t make the public pronouncement that he wants to play for a another team without violating baseball’s rules against tampering, but you’ll just have to take him at his word or let me vouch for the fact that he’s one of the most-earnest young men you’d ever want to meet.
So, it’s refreshing to hear Mancini say he wants to follow in the cleat marks of former teammate Adam Jones, who grew into a marquee player while the Orioles were wandering through the competitive desert and helped them emerge from a string of 14-straight losing seasons to make three playoff appearances in five years.
Jones makes a fine role model, but Mancini knows the score. Jones also is the proof that nobody is immune from the harsh reality of this hardcore rebuilding effort.
“I really would love to play here for a long time — I really would — but it’s also a business,” Mancini said. “I know that. It’s totally out of my jurisdiction and not really my arena. I’m a baseball player. I go out and play and hopefully everything else takes care of itself.”
Mancini is off to a terrific start after letting a frustrating start last year get too far inside his head. He learned from that experience, lessons that are allowing him to relax and play in the moment, which is why he insists he doesn’t spend any time worrying about anything else.
“I really don’t,’’ he said. “If feel like a couple years ago or maybe last year, it might be on my mind what happens in the future, but it’s completely out of my control. I’ve accepted that and I’m enjoying playing with these guys every day and that’s what I want to do.
“I try not to think of any of those long-term things too much because it can’t really benefit you in the present.”