CHICAGO — In the spring of 2016, when the Orioles had two first base prospects behind a freshly contracted Chris Davis and nowhere to play them, it was Trey Mancini's arm that kept the club from trying him in left field the way it did with Christian Walker.
Those doubts were put to bed a year later when Mancini was transitioned into an outfield role and took over regular left-field duties almost immediately, and his two outfield assists in the fifth inning Monday night illustrated how at least that facet of his defensive game has developed in his less than a full season's worth of work in the outfield.
"I had some doubts about it, just because of, conventionally, looking at it," manager Buck Showalter said. "But the thing that I underestimated was the want-to. Trey is going to be as good as he's capable of being. He doesn't sit around and say, 'I'm a first baseman who's got to play in left field.' He's been good for a while, because he works at it. In BP, he's working at it for situations like that."
No matter the long-term prognosis, Mancini's arm proved vital in the Orioles' fifth inning. He cut down No. 9 hitter Adam Engel at second base trying to stretch a one-out single into a double. Andrew Cashner walked the next batter, Yoán Moncada, on four pitches, then allowed a single that would have scored Engel had Mancini not thrown him out.
Then, a double into the left-field corner by first baseman José Abreu spelled trouble and scored Moncada from second base, but when Yolmer Sánchez tried to score from first, Mancini's relay via shortstop Manny Machado beat him home to end the inning and take a second White Sox run off the board.
Center fielder Adam Jones lauded the plays as strong fundamental ones, and said they stuck out when looking back at how the Orioles picked up a rare road victory.
"When you use every facet of your team, you generally do well," Jones said.
The two assists gave Mancini six this season, tying him with Houston Astros outfielder Josh Reddick and Los Angeles Angels outfielder Kole Calhoun for the most in baseball. He had five in 88 games there last year.
By other measurements, however, Mancini's defense is lagging from where it was last season. According to FanGraphs, he's caught 75.9 percent of the balls in his zone entering Monday, down from 91.1 percent last season. Anecdotally, he's done well to chase balls down in foul territory, but more are falling in around him. And when they do, they're costly. His -10 defensive runs saved (DRS) entering Monday was worst among qualifying outfielders, and well below his -1 rating last year.
On Monday, he likely did plenty to change those. The defensive metrics are the most fickle at this point, especially early in the season, and Mancini saw some late-season improvement in them last year.
What those throws did show, however, is there's no extra credit for coming to a position late at the big league level. What Mancini did was the expectation, and no extra credit is given for having to learn it on the fly.
"He's a baseball player," Jones said. "Play baseball, you'll figure it out. That's the beauty of this game. You have no choice.”