Ryan Mountcastle is putting on a power display the likes of which they haven’t often seen at Triple-A Norfolk. On past iterations of the Orioles, the 22-year-old slugger, who needs to be added to the major league roster this offseason anyway, would be a shoo-in September call-up.
That he might not be only goes to show yet again that things here are not like they used to be.
On the production front, it’s hard to argue. He entered Sunday’s series-finale against Charlotte with 25 home runs and a .311/.344/.532 batting line. Even in a lively offensive environment created by the use of major league baseballs at Triple-A, it’s mostly the product of a hitter with precocious hands who has grown into legitimate power.
“I haven’t seen too many wall-scrapers, you know what I mean?” Norfolk manager Gary Kendall said. “He’s gotten into some balls, and they’re well-hit. They’re barreled. That’s really what I look at. How the home runs or the doubles, the quality of the swing and the quality of the contact, and who he’s doing it against. …
“I’ve been very impressed with what he’s been doing, and he’s been doing it against good pitching, in the middle of the lineup, throughout the whole season. Lefties, righties, the breaking ball, the changeup, the fastball — it’s not like a fluke. He’s maintained a solid average, driven in runs, scored runs, and hit some home runs, doubles. He’s using the whole field, so it’s been quite a joy to sit here and watch him play, and I’m excited about his future here.”
All that praise for Mountcastle is tempered by the need for development in other areas. He has fewer walks (22) than home runs (25) entering Sunday, and his 4.2% walk rate is 12th-lowest among 336 qualifying players in the high minors, according to FanGraphs. He’s also in his first season at both first base and left field as the team tries to find a defensive home that will allow him to play every day, though those are crowded positions at the major league level.
The strides he’s made at the plate are real. Jace Peterson hit either before or after him for months at Norfolk and commended how Mountcastle learned quickly that pitchers would challenge him with high heat then sliders away. He adjusted, a sign that there’s an eye there that the walk rate doesn’t show; he just has the ability to get his bat to many of them, and drive what he gets his bat to.
All that, even with the caveats, would have meant he’d spend at least part of September with the Orioles in years past. In the past few years, well-regarded Norfolk bats like Trey Mancini, Chance Sisco and DJ Stewart were brought up ahead of the offseason in which they’d need to be added to the roster anyway to prevent other teams from taking them in the Rule 5 draft. Austin Hays was also brought up from Double-A Bowie in 2017.
All were called up as a way to not only get them some early major league experience, but to show that the Orioles have major league caliber players in the system that they drafted and developed in their oft-criticized farm system.
If the calculus has changed at all under executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias, it will be on that last factor. No longer do the Orioles need to call up players just to prove that they have good prospects. The farm system jumped into the top-half of the Baseball America organizational rankings this summer, and increased attention on the minors means more people might know about Mountcastle than members of the major league roster.
There’s plenty that will go into Elias and company’s calculations as to who joins the club when rosters expand Sept. 1.
“I think it’s nice in the type of year we’ve had to see some kind of players from the minor league system trickle up,” Elias said. “I always try to keep in mind that these guys typically struggle in their early major league plate appearances or innings. That excitement can wear off really quick, and in fact can turn into the opposite, where there’s a bad taste in the mouth of the fan-base or even the coaching staff. You just want to do what’s right for the kid, whatever that is, and be disciplined about that.
“But in terms of the call-ups, the guys that are on the roster already, it would be inaccurate to say that doesn’t matter, because when you add somebody to the roster, you typically have to take somebody off. That’s a big decision. We’ve got several guys who are amongst our top prospects who will need to be protected from the Rule 5 draft this year. A lot of these guys will be going on the roster this winter, some of the players that are in Norfolk right now or just got to Norfolk and are doing well. We will start to see a lot of players from our quote-unquote ‘prospect list’ on the big league team here in the next month, and early next season.”
It’s a long list of prospects who need to be added to the 40-man roster or risk being selected in the draft this winter, beginning with Mountcastle and including outfielders Yusniel Diaz and Ryan McKenna, left-hander Keegan Akin and right-handers Dean Kremer and Cody Sedlock, among others. Some of those players are on the fringes of being added; some are locks.
Adding any of them now would mean another player comes off the roster, and especially on the position-player side, there’s not a lot of flexibility. Possible trips to the Arizona Fall League for Kremer, Díaz, and Hays, all of whom have dealt with injuries, would also complicate possible call-ups Sept. 1, as that season starts Sept. 17.
Even if the results haven’t been there for many of the rostered pitchers at Norfolk, the Orioles will welcome them all to ensure they have a fresh pitching staff down the stretch. They can worry about adding players when the time comes in November.
Given that Hunter Harvey is already in the majors, and Hays is in a similar situation with injuries and his service-time clock working against his development, they might end up being the proverbial rewards for fans who stuck around through this season.
The rest might have to wait in a way they didn’t here in recent years. It might be a precedent worth setting.
What’s to come?
A couple of days off, which considering the Orioles have played 24 games in 25 days this month, are probably going to be welcome for this club. That the first comes as they’ve won four of their past six is immaterial.
The days off come on either side of a two-day series down in Washington against the streaking Nationals, followed by a three-game series against the Kansas City Royals. In the Royals, the Orioles had a team they were the equal of and played well against in town last week.
Since the Orioles took four of seven against the Los Angeles Angels this season, they’re guaranteed to have a winning record against at least one team. Another series win against the Royals will give them a second. They can also finish above-.500 against the Nationals, Toronto Blue Jays, Texas Rangers and Detroit Tigers, though all those are tougher asks than beating the Royals twice.
What was good?
A pair of winning starts for right-hander Dylan Bundy means his season might be back on track in earnest. Ever since he finally got the message that pitching with his diminished fastball velocity wasn’t going to cut it after being pulled after five innings May 11, Bundy has made 17 starts and gone at least five innings in 15 (including Sunday) of them. He’s allowed three runs or fewer in 12, and only his post-All-Star break stinker (one inning, seven runs) is keeping it from looking even better statistically.
Bundy’s start Sunday brought his ERA back down below five to 4.98, and while he ran into trouble as the day went on, he’s establishing that he can pitch well at his current velocity level for prospective teams to judge this offseason.
In finally admitting that Chris Davis’ playing time was going to diminish even further as the Orioles commit to playing younger players, manager Brandon Hyde rubbed away the last bit of varnish on a bad situation that’s only getting worse.
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Since their dugout dustup, Davis is 2-for-23 with 10 strikeouts and has started fewer than half of their games in that span. It leaves only one place to go for Davis, save for a miraculous return of form. But who knows when the balance of money owed and the worth of a roster spot going to someone else will finally tilt toward parting ways? It could still be a year before that makes sense financially for the club, and that’s a long time.
On the farm
There are bigger names in the rotation at Low-A Delmarva than Ryan Wilson, with Grayson Rodriguez, Drew Rom and Gray Fenter all pitching well as former high picks. Wilson, a 33rd-round pick in 2017, is more than holding his own with them. The Orioles used him as a reliever last year for the Shorebirds, but his four-pitch mix was worth a shot as a starter this year.
He pitched the second game of Saturday’s doubleheader at Hagerstown and allowed one hit in seven shutout innings, striking out five against three walks to give him 99 strikeouts in 87 2/3 innings with a 2.59 ERA and a 1.03 WHIP. Wilson’s fastball sits in the mid-to-upper 80s but can reach 90 mph late in counts, with the ability to locate breaking balls and get weak contact with a changeup.