Sometime this week, the Orioles will likely have outfielders Anthony Santander and Dwight Smith Jr. back in the fold from their unexplained absences that began after both reported to Baltimore for their coronavirus intake testing July 1.
In fact, Santander reported to camp for the first time Tuesday. Their returns will be plenty welcome, considering that the only true outfielders in camp at first were Austin Hays and DJ Stewart.
Utility men Andrew Velazquez and Stevie Wilkerson provided cover and late camp additions Ryan Mountcastle, Mason Williams and Cedric Mullins mean the ghost outfielder that featured in their early intrasquad scrimmages can be placed on waivers and replaced with a real one.
It’s an outfield crisis that no one could have accounted for, and even if it will soon be mitigated naturally, it’s one the club at least knows must be addressed.
MLB.com reported over the weekend that the Orioles had made an offer to former All-Star outfielder Yasiel Puig. Many posited online that day that he would immediately become the Orioles’ best player. It would be fantastically fun from the moment it began.
However, Puig reportedly signed a deal Tuesday with the Atlanta Braves.
If the Orioles are looking for what Puig could’ve brought — intrigue, excitement and production — then they should at least be flexible in their insistence that Mountcastle won’t be part of the major league mix to start the season.
Puig, from a production standpoint at age 29, would give the Orioles more based off preseason projections than Mountcastle would. Per FanGraphs’ forecasts, Mountcastle is projected to bat .267 with a .749 OPS and five home runs in 132 plate appearances this year, with Puig projected in that same model to hit .264 with an .803 OPS and five home runs in 130 plate appearances.
To put that in 2019 Orioles context in terms of weighted runs created-plus (wRC+), which adjusts for a variety of factors with 100 being league average, Puig’s projected 2020 production would be akin to Jonathan Villar’s, while Mountcastle’s would be in line with Pedro Severino’s.
It’s not a small difference, but not an overwhelming one either — not that it will sway their thinking either way.
Mountcastle, the 23-year-old slugger, has been ticketed to begin 2020 in the minors since this time last year. Club officials didn’t add him to the roster for September call-ups despite his being named the International League Most Valuable Player at Triple-A Norfolk, and they strongly suggested he’d have more work to do to earn his debut. He undoubtedly would have already had the season gone on as planned.
“He wasn’t one of the original players that we brought in here,” manager Brandon Hyde said Monday. “I think that he’s going to go to Bowie and get some more work in and be ready for us sometime this summer.”
Even in the unique conditions of the 2020 season, Mountcastle’s immediate future is owed to a disappointing trend around the game regarding a player’s service time. If he opens the season in the minor leagues, even for a week, the Orioles can delay him achieving six years of major league service time and thus reaching free agency for a full season later in his career.
The longer they delay his arrival, the higher the likelihood that three of those seasons, rather than two, will be at the league minimum before Mountcastle can get raises through the salary arbitration process. For someone who is expected to hit for power and accumulate the counting stats that drive that process, those weeks could be worth millions to the Orioles.
All that said, such tactics from clubs are reserved for prospects rated much higher than the Orioles’ 2019 Brooks Robinson Minor League Player of the Year is. Mountcastle has been on the fringes of major league-wide top-100 prospect lists, mostly due to uncertainty about where he will play defensively.
The Orioles added first base to that mix last spring training, and more recently, introduced him to left field. For prospects with developed bats like Mountcastle’s, the argument that they need to improve their defense and plate discipline is an easy one for teams to make when it comes to putting off a major league debut.
Hyde, for his part, said he can already see a difference in Mountcastle’s outfield presence. Mountcastle said the regular chances he got there in spring training helped build on his offseason work at that position.
“There’s a lot that goes into the outfield, just getting better routes,” Mountcastle said. “That’s all I was trying to do. Being able to put my head down and run and look up and be able to find the ball, stuff like that, as opposed to the infield. When you get a pop fly in the infield, you’ve got your eyes on it the whole time. But when you’ve really got to put your head down and run in the outfield it’s a little more tough.”
As far as the plate discipline aspect, Mountcastle said the way to do that is “more live at-bats, getting more experience, and knowing what I’m looking for instead of just going up there without much of a plan.”
It’s the Orioles’ estimation that developing that for the foreseeable future is going to happen in intrasquad games at Bowie, not in real games in Baltimore. For a team with as modest ambitions as the 2020 Orioles will have, and who are trying to still build a contender down the line with a homegrown core, it’s sensible from that perspective.
Anything that happens to block Mountcastle’s call-up from happening this summer, though, would run counter to that plan.
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“I worked my butt off my entire life just to be a big leaguer,” Mountcastle said. “I want to be able to be up there and help the team win. I think I bring enough to the table to do that, and hopefully I get that call this year.”