Ryan Mountcastle, his friends and family, and Orioles fans were made to wait nearly a month into the 2020 season for his major league debut. That wait ended Friday.
The Orioles promoted Mountcastle, their No. 5 prospect according to Baseball America, from their alternate training site in Bowie to make his debut in Friday’s game against the Boston Red Sox at Camden Yards. A defensive nomad since Baltimore took him as a shortstop out of a Florida high school with the 36th overall pick of the 2015 draft, Mountcastle was in Friday’s lineup as the left fielder, batting sixth.
“I didn’t really know if or when I’d get the call,” Mountcastle said. “I was just trying to stay prepared every day. I thought it was a pretty good chance I’d get the call this year at some point, so I was at the edge of my seat for a little bit. But I just knew I needed to go out there, get better every day down at the Bowie site, and I think I did enough to do that.”
The call finally came at 10 a.m. Friday from Triple-A Norfolk manager Gary Kendall, and outbound calls to family, friends and old coaches followed. In a corresponding move, the Orioles placed first baseman Chris Davis on the 10-day injured list with left knee patellar tendinitis, potentially opening time at the position for Mountcastle, though both he and manager Brandon Hyde indicated he will primarily play left.
“I’m going to play him a lot,” Hyde said. “We’re going to give him a lot of at-bats here in the next 30-plus games, and I know he’s excited to be here. Looking forward to watching him play.”
With the coronavirus pandemic leading to the cancellation of the minor league season, Mountcastle, 23, spent the season’s first month continuing the development path that saw him become the Orioles’ 2019 Brooks Robinson Minor League Player of the Year while training his defense and approach at Bowie.
Now listed at 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, Mountcastle shifted from shortstop to third base with a 2017 promotion to Double-A Bowie and remained at both that position and level through 2018. In 2019, he played primarily first base while dabbling in left field for Norfolk, where he was the International League Most Valuable Player thanks to 25 home runs, a .312 average and an .871 OPS. Always known for his bat over his glove, Mountcastle was an All-Star at Norfolk, Bowie and High-A Frederick while hitting .295 with 70 home runs in five minor league seasons.
The Orioles decided against promoting him last September, with executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias at the time citing the lack of a true defensive position and questionable plate discipline. With 130 strikeouts to only 24 walks in 2019, Mountcastle was one of 24 minor leaguers with at least 400 at-bats who struck out more than five times as often as he walked. He also had the highest OPS of that group.
After the season’s first week, the Orioles could call him up from their alternate training site in Bowie without him earning a full year of service time, thus keeping him under team control for an extra season. But with that date passed, he remained in Bowie, training in left field and working on his plate discipline.
Friday, the Orioles finally felt he was ready on both fronts.
“I just think we feel comfortable with the work he’s put in at the secondary site,” Hyde said. “This isn’t a snap decision. This is something we’ve talked about for a while now. We felt like today was the day.”
The timing doesn’t hurt, either, with the Orioles having lost five straight games entering Friday and scoring two or fewer runs in three of those defeats. They have had one of the least productive left field units in baseball, getting a collective .557 OPS that ranks 26th of 30 teams at that position.
“I feel a lot more comfortable in the outfield now,” Mountcastle said. “It’s sort of a new position for me still, but I feel like I did enough work down there to be serviceable up here in the big leagues and help them win.”
Davis’ injury could allow for the occasional return to first base for Mountcastle, but it’s likely Renato Núñez handles the position so Hyde can use the designated-hitter spot for either of Baltimore’s hot-hitting catchers, Pedro Severino and Chance Sisco. All four were in Hyde’s lineup Friday.
With Davis joining shortstop José Iglesias on the injured list, third catcher Bryan Holaday is the Orioles’ only active position player older than 28 years old. Davis, the longest-tenured Oriole, was hitting .122/.173/.184 with no home runs and 16 strikeouts in 52 plate appearances. Hyde said he first complained of knee soreness a few days ago, with rest and treatment eventually determined to be the best option. Hyde was unsure when he would return.
He offered a more optimistic timeline for Iglesias, who was hitting .400 with a .917 OPS despite a bothersome quad injury. While Hyde said Iglesias could return sometime during the club’s upcoming road trip, he said Opening Day center fielder Austin Hays is “still feeling” his broken rib and could be up to two weeks away from rejoining the Orioles.
Despite the addition of Mountcastle, “we’re still not at full strength,” Hyde said.
Hays opened the season a spot in front of Mountcastle on the organizational list of top prospects. Although Orioles fans will have to wait to see them together in the lineup, Friday offered their first glimpse at Mountcastle.
“I just want him to be as comfortable as he can possibly be,” Hyde said. “I want him to feel like he belongs here. I think he’s a confident guy. I think half of the battle is to feel like you belong here, and I think he feels that way. I just want him to play his game and be a part of the team and not feel like he needs to carry any load.”
Mountcastle echoed that point.
“I’m just going to go out there and play my game and not try to do too much,” Mountcastle said. “That’s all you can do. I’m not going to be trying to hit balls 800 feet. I’m just gonna try to stay within my approach and keep doing what I’ve been doing.
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“This game’s tough as it is, so I think you’re going to be developing your whole career, trying to be the best player you can be, and for right now, I feel like I’m ready to go.”