One for the future: Evaluating Orioles prospect Ryan Mountcastle

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Without much to look forward to this year in terms of the major league club, which is on its way to one of the worst seasons in baseball history, the Orioles' focus will shift toward the next generation of players they hope will help reverse that before long.

The twice-weekly "One for the future," beginning this week, will highlight an Orioles minor leaguer who is on the radar for either prospect status, performance or pedigree.

For the first installment, a look at third baseman Ryan Mountcastle, who will represent the Orioles on Sunday as a member of the U.S. team in the All-Star Futures Game in Washington.

The past

Selected with the 36th overall pick in the 2015 draft — a selection sent the Orioles' way as compensation for the departure of designated hitter Nelson Cruz in free agency — Mountcastle was taken to play a position on the complete opposite end of the defensive spectrum from where he is now: shortstop.

Wherever he's played in the field, though, he's been most comfortable in the batter's box. He hit .296 with 11 extra-base hits in short-season ball during his draft summer, debuted in full-season ball at age 19 to bat .281 with 10 home runs and 28 doubles for Low-A Delmarva, and broke out with a monster first half at High-A Frederick last summer.

Mountcastle, then 20, hit .314 with an .885 OPS, 15 home runs and 35 doubles in 88 Carolina League games before his promotion to Double-A Bowie came with a caveat — he was moving to third base.

To that point, he'd made 43 errors in 1,903 innings at shortstop — roughly one every five games — but evaluators questioned everything from his range at the position to his arm strength. Moving him to third base, the Orioles' posited, would bring his momentum toward first base on many throws and also give him a little more time on transfers.

The transition stunted him some at the plate, as he hit .222 down the stretch for Bowie last summer. He got acclimated to the position some, then played in the Arizona Fall League to get more time at third before going to major league camp this spring.

The present

After missing the first few weeks of the season with a fractured wrist suffered in spring training, Mountcastle has shown that his offensive adjustment to the Eastern League is long past.

Mountcastle, bound for the league's All-Star Game this week, hit the break batting .316 with an .875 OPS and 22 extra-base hits in 57 games. While he's not terribly selective at the plate, he's nearly walked as many times this season (16) as he did all of last year (17), with his full-season high of 25 from 2016 well within reach. Mountcastle's skills at the plate, however, come because of his quick, loose hands and ability to identify and stay back on breaking pitches.

His exit message at the end of spring training this year was essentially that he shouldn't come back to big league camp having walked less than once a week, and he's improved on that front so far.

The future

No one inside or outside the Orioles organization denies Mountcastle is going to hit, and given some of the challenges the organization's other top hitting prospects have faced this year, he clearly possesses the best bat in the farm system. Nothing that's happened this year will change that.

What will make it matter, and what will determine how quickly it gets into the major league lineup, will be where he plays. The organization is at least outwardly encouraged by his returns at third base. Many others remain skeptical that he'll be able to play there at the highest level.

The problem becomes that the only positions further down the defensive spectrum are left field, where the Orioles have a first baseman in Trey Mancini because first base will be filled by Chris Davis for the next four years. Mark Trumbo, signed through 2019, is locked in as the designated hitter.

That doesn't leave anywhere for someone who otherwise doesn't have a position to break into the majors, be it in a platoon or otherwise. Either way, it's not like there's any rush. Given the general skepticism the evaluating public has of Orioles prospects in general, and the private undermining of their own players from parts of the organization, a player with so much to like about such as Mountcastle can be dinged for no other reason than he's not perfect. He's also 21, and who other than the absolute elite is perfect at that point?

If the Orioles need to let him try out a few positions at the Triple-A level, they can also have him face far more experienced pitching that will continue to try to take him out of the strike zone and season him for top-level pitching.

As valued as players moving through the minors quickly is in the modern prospect world, Mountcastle is 21 and even another year in the minors would put him in the majors at 22 and keep many of the best years of his career with the Orioles.

Mouncastle's bat will keep him in the conversation for a call-up no matter what. The next generation of the Orioles, whatever it looks like, will need to establish that value isn't only tied up in a player's bat. The Orioles have seen first-hand how that can go off the rails this year.

jmeoli@baltsun.com

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