With baseball set to officially transition into the offseason this week and the hot stove season to begin to simmer, it's time to revisit the Orioles' organizational depth across the diamond as a means to establish where they're strong and which areas they'll need to address, both this offseason and going forward.
For the next two weeks, we'll assess the Orioles' present and future at every position, and recap how both the major and minor leaguers at each spot fared in 2017, with the corner infield spots next on the list.
Two of the most recognizable Orioles man the corner infield spots, with star third baseman Manny Machado and first baseman Chris Davis fixtures on the Orioles infield for most of this decade.
Machado had a down year by his own lofty standards, yet still ended up batting .259 with a .782 OPS and 33 home runs while again being named a finalist for the Gold Glove award at third base. Davis hit .215 with a .732 OPS and 26 home runs in the second year of a seven-year deal.
Nominally, Trey Mancini and Mark Trumbo qualify as major league first base depth, though they're entrenched as the primary left fielder and designated hitter at this point. Machado's only real backup on the major league roster was catcher Caleb Joseph, who occasionally spelled him late in games.
Neither Machado nor Davis is going anywhere, at least next season. Though he'll be owed a massive salary in arbitration — MLB Trade Rumors projects it to be $17.3 million — that's a fair price to pay for a superstar talent a year away from free agency.
Davis will be back at first base in 2018 as well, though if he struggles as badly as he has lately against left-handers, someone like Trumbo or Mancini could start spelling him there against southpaws to allow another right-handed bat to get time in the outfield or at designated hitter.
However they're deployed, expect to see the same combo at the corner infield spots on Opening Day in 2018.
Of all the Orioles' recent improvements in their farm system — and it truly has improved — the infield is a spot of concern in terms of impact talent. Ryan Mountcastle, 20, moved to third base late this summer after struggling as a shortstop in pro ball, but he'll be known more for his bat regardless of where he plays. Mountcastle hit .287 with an .802 OPS, 18 home runs and 48 doubles between High-A Frederick and Double-A Bowie. On Tuesday, he hit his third home run in the Arizona Fall League.
While early indications are Mountcastle might not be a third baseman long term — making any thought that he could adequately replace Machado after 2018 premature at best and fanciful in any other assessment — first base is a long-term option for him, as is left field. Given Davis' presence for the next five seasons, left field might be the place he ends up, though that's already where the Orioles have shoved Mancini in an effort to get their best bats in the lineup around Davis.
The same general profile can be assigned to third baseman Jomar Reyes, who missed most of 2017 at Frederick after breaking a finger punching a dugout wall. He hit .324 with a .797 OPS and 16 extra-base hits in 57 games. The hulking 20-year-old still features some of the best raw power in the system, but hasn't tapped into it in games yet. The club believes adjustments to his swing that get his bat through the zone on time and allow him to cover more of the plate are making him a more consistent hitter and can bring that power out.
Many scouts still believe in the bat, though as Reyes continues to grow, it's hard for them to envision him at third base for very long. Like Mountcastle, they envision a move to first base or either corner outfield spot. It will be hard to move all of them to those spots, which are already full of productive young players like Mancini, Austin Hays, Cedric Mullins and DJ Stewart, among others.
Elsewhere, there are some intriguing corner infield prospects, though none are nearly as highly rated as Mountcastle, who projects to be a borderline top-100 prospect this offseason. Third baseman Drew Dosch, 25, hit .276 with a .763 OPS and 39 doubles between Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk this year, and is especially tough on right-handed pitching. He's tapping into some gap power in his swing, but whether he can break through and have a major league future is unclear.
Some of the most productive first basemen in the system this year — Pedro Álvarez, Aderlin Rodriguez and David Washington — are all ticketed for free agency this offseason, so they organization will take a hit there as well.
At lower levels, Alex Murphy (Calvert Hall) is more of a first baseman than a catcher at this point, while Ryan Ripken will be back, presumably for another year at Short-A Aberdeen.
Third baseman Trevor Craport, the Orioles' 11th-round draft pick in 2017, hit .302 with 21 extra-base hits in 52 games for Aberdeen.
For completely different reasons, no part of the diamond is more complicated for the Orioles in 2018 and beyond than these two. Save for a contract that shatters the club-record deal Davis got, Machado will test free agency after 2018 and leave behind a void that will be difficult to fill offensively and defensively. Many of the candidates below him on the current depth chart would be better suited in the majors in Davis' spot, which he will not cede at this point until 2022.
Mountcastle is going to be a special bat, with some within the organization and outside of it currently believing he's their best hitting prospect, even over breakout star Austin Hays. Reyes has the potential to be an impact bat, too. But where they fit into a major league lineup — specifically the Orioles' major league lineup — is too difficult to say now.
The easiest thing to do might be to enjoy the presumptive last year of Machado, hope Davis regains the approach that made him the game's most prolific slugger and worry about where to play the prospects when that time comes.