BOSTON — Outside of a player’s major league debut, few moments mean more than the first time they’re on a club for Opening Day with the attendant ceremony and prestige around the start of a baseball season.
Orioles rookie left fielder Ryan Mountcastle acknowledged Friday will be a “surreal moment and something I’ll cherish for sure.” But it will be harder to share it with those who helped him get to this point.
Mountcastle said his little brother, his stepfather, and his girlfriend and her family are all in Boston for Opening Day. Health and safety protocols for players prevent them from being able to see people outside of the team while on the road, so the celebration will be limited to a pregame wave and possibly a photograph.
“They’re not really allowing us to do very much outside of the field,” Mountcastle said. “I’m just going to say ‘hey’ to them at the game today, maybe take some pictures.”
Mountcastle is one of eight Orioles enjoying his first Opening Day on Friday, a list that includes Bruce Zimmermann (Ellicott City), Dean Kremer, Ramón Urías, Dillon Tate, César Valdez, Mac Sceroler, and Tyler Wells.
That group of first-timers is expected to be a big part of the Orioles’ success this year, to the extent they have any, but none more so than Mountcastle.
He debuted with the Orioles in August and hit .333 with an .878 OPS and five home runs in 35 games. He fell just short of exceeding rookie eligibility, so is a contender for AL Rookie of the Year based on the possibility of him being in the middle of the Orioles’ lineup for a full season this year.
This spring, Mountcastle started slowly but ended up hitting well down the stretch, ending spring training with four home runs.
“I was really impressed last year with his plate discipline when he came up,” manager Brandon Hyde said last week. “That was something we hadn’t seen in the spring. I know he only has one walk this spring and that was [Thursday] night, but him getting into hitter’s counts and battling with two strikes, I’ve seen a lot of at-bats so far this spring where it’s straight battle mode with two strikes, a not-giving-in approach. That was something I saw last summer when he came up the last month or so also.
“I like the way he hits the ball the other way,” Hyde continued. “For me, that means he’s staying on the baseball. He’s going to see a ton of breaking balls. He’s going to see a ton of sliders and curveballs out over the plate, and when he’s right, he’s able to let the ball travel and stay on it with his eyes. That’s what he did last summer, and he was coming off the ball a little bit early in camp this year, a little too quick. In these last two weeks, he’s really stayed on the baseball nicely.”
Hyde has said that he likes Mountcastle, Trey Mancini, and Anthony Santander batting in some order in the 2-3-4 spots in the batting order, meaning Mountcastle will get plenty of chances to produce for the Orioles.
A full season of Mountcastle at the plate, even with the inevitable adjustments big league pitchers will make to him, could be an exciting prospect for the Orioles. Still, his selectivity issues in the minors bake some pessimism into some of his 2021 forecasts.
Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projection sees Mountcastle hitting 25 home runs with a .256 batting average and a .744 OPS, while FanGraphs’ ZIPS projections have Mountcastle batting .288 with a .794 OPS and 21 home runs.
Ruiz a surprise Opening Day second baseman
Just last week, Rio Ruiz playing second base for the Orioles in spring training was a measure the team took in case of an in-season emergency. The opportunity to put the longtime third baseman there came sooner than expected, with Ruiz starting there and batting fifth on Opening Day.
“I think we’re going to see how it goes,” Hyde said. “He hasn’t had a whole lot of time at second base. He played there quite a bit this past week, got a couple games in, a lot of work on the back field, a lot of work with [third base coach Tony Mansolino] getting to know second base. But the bottom line is to try to get [Maikel] Franco, Ruiz, both of their bats in the lineup in the same day, especially against somebody like [Red Sox starter Nathan] Eovaldi who I like to have left-handers in there against him. I think it’s going to be, as we are right now, I think it’s going to be a decision on a daily basis. He’s going to play a lot, and today, he’s at second base. We’ll see how it goes the rest of the way.”
In some cases, Franco could be the designated hitter with Ruiz at third base and either Pat Valaika or Ramón Urías at second base. For Opening Day, Mountcastle is the designated hitter with Austin Hays in left field, Cedric Mullins in center field, and Anthony Santander in right field.
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Santander was out the last week of spring training with soreness in his side, but Hyde said he was well enough to play Friday.