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Orioles reset: Jorge Mateo is the type of waiver claim the club’s rebuild has been waiting for

In Brandon Hyde’s three years as Orioles manager, executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias has provided him more than a full roster’s worth of players plucked from other organizations’ discard piles.

But none of Baltimore’s waiver claims in that time have been quite like Jorge Mateo.

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Those Elias has snagged from opposing teams who have appeared for Hyde’s Orioles have mostly been players who couldn’t stick in the majors, with some regular contributors such as Hanser Alberto, Pedro Severino and Jorge López. Yet the tools Mateo has shown in his first three games with Baltimore make him unique among the nearly 30 players who have arrived via the waiver wire.

A former top 100 prospect with the New York Yankees, Mateo, 26, never reached the majors with them or the Oakland Athletics and spent the past two seasons as a bench piece for the San Diego Padres. On an Orioles team that has cycled through second basemen this season, he should finally be able to get some extended playing time over the season’s final months.

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He is, according to MLB’s Statcast data, the third-fastest player in baseball this season and for a point this weekend held the top spot. No Oriole has been quicker since Statcast began tracking in 2015. Orioles All-Star Cedric Mullins, who Sunday became the seventh player in franchise history with 20 home runs and 20 steals in a season, is nearly 2 feet per second slower on average than Mateo.

“He’s the fastest man alive,” starting pitcher Spenser Watkins said Saturday, hours after Mateo provided Baltimore’s first run of the night by doubling and scoring a pitch later on a wild throw as he stole third base.

The night before, he came off the bench with a run-scoring triple for his first hit as an Oriole, cruising around the bases and clapping his hand as he sauntered into third base standing up. Sunday, he was hit by a pitch, stole second to improve to 8-for-8 in that measure for his career and scored easily on Richie Martin’s soft single to right. In each case, his helmet flew off his head, unable to keep up.

There have been some defensive lapses. He had only eight career appearances at third base before playing there in his team debut Friday and was there in the eighth when former Oriole Nelson Cruz’s 89 mph liner went past his glove for a tiebreaking double. Saturday at second base, he rushed a feed to Martin at shortstop, leading to big eighth inning for the Rays. But earlier in the game, he ranged far to his right and threw across his body to retire the speedy Manuel Margot for an impressive out.

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Hyde has said the Orioles are open to playing Mateo in the outfield, which he did with San Diego this year, but they want to give him a chance to get comfortable on the middle infield. The pairing of Mateo and Martin, the two fastest Orioles since Statcast began tracking, makes Baltimore’s infield immensely more athletic. Their bats remain the question, though Martin is a former first-round pick and Mateo stole 82 bases one year in the low minors and hit 19 home runs in 2019 in the offensive haven of Las Vegas with Oakland’s Triple-A affiliate.

A weekend showing off dynamic speed certainly does not qualify the claim of Mateo as a success. Still, an Orioles infield that has been mostly composed of waiver claims at times this year has added another, possibly the most intriguing of Hyde’s tenure.

What’s to come?

Camden Yards could serve as host to history this week. Miguel Cabrera homered twice in the first game of the Orioles’ previous road trip, and another pair during his Detroit Tigers’ visit to Baltimore would give him 500 for his career. Cabrera could become the fourth batter to hit his 500th career home run against the Orioles, joining Mickey Mantle, Harmon Killebrew and Manny Ramirez. Only Ramirez’s 2008 solo shot came in Baltimore, and he and Eddie Murray are the only players whose 500th homer was at Oriole Park.

The Orioles then visit Fenway Park for the first their since their season-opening sweep of the Boston Red Sox. All-Star left-hander Chris Sale, who finished in the top six of American League Cy Young Award voting each year from 2012 to 2018, is expected to make his first start back from 2019 Tommy John surgery Saturday.

What was good?

For most of the season, López’s starts followed a similar script: four solid innings, a disastrous fifth. This week, the right-hander started to shake that stigma, holding two AL East foes in the New York Yankees and division-leading Rays to a combined three runs in two six-inning starts.

“Loved the way he threw the ball, loved the emotion, loved the composure, loved the presence on the mound his last two starts,” Hyde said. “Great presence. Looked like a AL East starter, legitimate guy that can go through the lineup three times and with a normal bullpen gives you the chance to win the game.”

What wasn’t?

The Orioles came 90 feet shy of becoming the first team in AL history to allow double-digit runs in five straight games, but the greater concern is that a pitcher largely responsible for allowing them to get that close had been one of their most reliable.

Left-hander Paul Fry retired only one of the eight batters he faced in the Rays’ sweep, and he walked at least one batter in each of his four appearances last week. Previously, he had issued a walk in back-to-back outings only once in 2020.

“Just not throwing strikes,” Hyde said. “He’ll go on a run where three or four games he does. First couple months of the year, pretty good. And then he goes in periods where he doesn’t and misses off the edges. Not attacking guys he should.”

Fry pitched his way into the closer’s role by carrying a sub-2.00 ERA into mid-June, but since, he has a 10.06 ERA. In that span, all of the hits he has allowed have been singles — he’s allowed only one extra-base hit all year and no home runs — but he’s allowed 14 walks in 17 innings. He entered this troublesome stretch with 12 walks in 25 ⅓ innings.

On the farm

Despite some Florida weather cutting into their playing time, several of the Orioles’ recent draftees have started to matriculate into Florida Complex League action.

No. 5 overall pick Colton Cowser is 6-for-9 with a home run and a 1.811 OPS in three games, and 10th-rounder Billy Cook is one of only six FCL players with at least three steals over the past week.

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