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In Orioles’ ‘land of opportunity,’ Jorge Mateo showing off what once made him Yankees’ top prospect

NEW YORK — Jorge Mateo first learned how fast he was as a 7-year-old in his Dominican hometown of Santo Domingo, when he finished first in a race among his peers. Orioles coach Fredi González came to the realization nearly two decades later, seeing Mateo’s stolen base totals among his minor league stats after Baltimore claimed him on waivers.

Since arriving after the San Diego Padres designated him for assignment last month, Mateo has continually displayed his quick feet, capitalizing on the opportunity the Orioles have provided him. Of late, the power has come, too. In Friday night’s seventh inning, Mateo hit a game-tying home run in his first game at Yankee Stadium, the home of the organization that once considered him its top prospect.

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Standing in the dugout before that game, Mateo admired the ballpark that was once supposed to be his own.

“It’s a lot of things jumping around my brain, but I try to not think about anything,” he said. “Just try to do my job today and try to help my team win.”

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That result hasn’t happened frequently during his time with Baltimore, but that doesn’t diminish his .306/.359/.482 batting line with the Orioles. This monthlong stretch marks the first time in the majors Mateo, 26, is living up to the prospect billing he once carried.

Despite Mateo’s previously meager major league statistics, González believed the Orioles had gotten their hands on a talented player as he perused his minor league metrics. Those thoughts were reinforced when infield coach Tony Mansolino heard from a fellow Vanderbilt alum in Ryan Flaherty, a longtime Orioles infielder who is now a member of San Diego’s coaching staff.

“He goes, ‘You’re gonna get a guy who’s got a lot of tools,’” González recalled. “He just never got a chance to play there.”

That speed is the most evident tool, with Mateo’s sprint speed of 30.5 feet per second tying him as baseball’s third-fastest player. His first hit as an Oriole was a blazing triple. He rarely ends a dash with his batting helmet on, the protective equipment unable to keep up.

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Cedric Mullins, the Orioles’ lone All-Star and their fastest regular before Mateo’s arrival, has been left impressed.

“It’s like watching a track runner,” Mullins said. “You just know he’s gone.”

The Orioles' Jorge Mateo jogs around the bases after hitting a home run Friday night against the Yankees, the team that once considered him its top prospect.
The Orioles' Jorge Mateo jogs around the bases after hitting a home run Friday night against the Yankees, the team that once considered him its top prospect. (Adam Hunger/AP)

But in some ways, his skill set has been a crutch. A shortstop throughout his professional career, Mateo found himself amid a star-studded Padres infield featuring former Oriole Manny Machado, Fernando Tatis Jr. and Jake Cronenworth. His speed brought value, with most of his playing time coming as a pinch-runner, pinch-hitter or defensive replacement in the outfield.

In his third game as an Oriole, Mateo made his second start in Baltimore’s infield, surpassing his total from a calendar year with the Padres. In about 30 fewer but far more frequent plate appearances than he had in San Diego, he has recorded more hits, extra-base hits and base-on-balls. He’s drawn a walk in each of his past four games, doubling his season total.

“Jorge’s getting an opportunity here,” Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said. “It’s probably something he’s been waiting for for a while.”

The Yankees signed Mateo out of the Dominican Republic for $225,000 in 2012. Three years later, he stole 82 bases between Low-A and High-A, leading all minor leaguers. Heading into the next season, Baseball America ranked him as New York’s top prospect, with current Yankees fixtures Gary Sánchez and Aaron Judge trailing him, and among the top 30 in the sport.

At the 2017 trade deadline, Mateo was one of three prospects the Oakland Athletics acquired from the Yankees for starting pitcher Sonny Gray; in his first stint in the upper minors, Mateo batted .296/.357/.521 between the organizations’ Double-A affiliates. He struggled with Triple-A Nashville in 2018, but once Oakland’s highest affiliate moved to the offensive haven of Las Vegas the next year, Mateo hit 19 home runs with an .834 OPS, both career highs for a full season.

Mateo represented both the Yankees and A’s in an All-Star Futures Game, but neither allowed him to live up to the exhibition’s title. When the league lifted its pandemic-related transaction freeze, the first trade was Oakland sending Mateo to San Diego for a player to be named later. For a Padres team seeking a playoff run amid a shortened season, he represented an optimal bench piece with his speed and versatility.

He remained in that role through his tenure there. Amid a rebuild that has featured several regulars plucked from the waiver wire, the Orioles are the first team to give him an extended showcase as a starter. It is, as Mullins put it, “the land of opportunity.”

“He sees it right in front of him,” González said. “I think he can be more of himself and play a game knowing, ‘I go 0-for-4 and make an error, I’m going to be in there tomorrow again and get another opportunity, and it’s not the end of the world.’”

“You have to take advantage of every opportunity that you have," Orioles infielder Jorge Mateo said. "You don’t even know about the past, you know about the present. The past is the past. You have to take advantage of the present.”
“You have to take advantage of every opportunity that you have," Orioles infielder Jorge Mateo said. "You don’t even know about the past, you know about the present. The past is the past. You have to take advantage of the present.” (Terrance Williams/AP)

But that newfound freedom has not made Mateo interested in declaring what he’s done in Baltimore could’ve happened with his previous organizations if he had simply been provided the chance.

“You never know,” Mateo said. “You have to take advantage of every opportunity that you have. You don’t even know about the past, you know about the present. The past is the past. You have to take advantage of the present.”

He’s doing that, much to González’s delight. Between the Florida Marlins and Atlanta Braves, González has a decade as a manager, with another dozen or so years on major league coaching staffs. Mateo takes a unique place in his mind.

“I’ve been around a little bit in the big leagues; this is one of the best DFA [acquisitions] that I’ve seen,” González said. “You [usually] get a DFA guy and you go, ‘OK, I can understand why he got the DFA’ed.’ But so far, there hasn’t been any warts or pimples or anything that you go, ‘Ugh.’ As a matter of fact, it’s been the other way. You start going, ‘Wow, that’s a pretty good player.’”

Mateo hopes to keep proving that over the season’s final month. González, who has been particularly impressed with Mateo’s defense given his lack of major league reps, believes he’s capable of maintaining this success, carrying a serviceable sample size of everyday playing time into next spring training.

“Thank God for the opportunity and the Baltimore Orioles for giving me the chance to show what I got, to show everything I can do every day,” Mateo said. “Just to show I am a good teammate, I’m the guy you can trust, the guy who can play every day, the guy who no matter what happens is gonna play hard.

“For me, God has the perfect time for everybody. And that’s my time for now.”

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