SARASOTA, FLA. — Trey Mancini was a relatively unknown minor leaguer shuttled in from Twin Lakes Park to play in the late innings of early spring Grapefruit League games, when he was first noticed by Orioles front office executive Brady Anderson.
In his first two years as a professional, Mancini showed he had a knack for hitting, but he had yet to find the power stroke needed to truly open eyes, with just 13 total homers.
Anderson, the team's vice president of baseball operations, was in the Orioles dugout at Ed Smith Stadium and took note of Mancini in the on-deck circle before an eighth-inning at-bat against the Toronto Blue Jays on March 5, 2015. He seemed hyper, and a little bit rushed. Mancini went to the plate, took a strike, fouled a pitch off and shortly thereafter struck out. It was an unmemorable at-bat by any other standards, but both Mancini and Anderson remember it well.
"I had never met him and I had only seen him hit on film," Anderson said. "As soon as he took his first swing, I called [player development director] Brian Graham and told him, 'Hey, get this guy here tomorrow.'"
Mancini returned to big league camp the next day, and worked with Anderson for the next four days. They worked on the way he stood in the batter's box, and concentrated on adjusting his swing to produce more power. They talked about sequencing an at-bat, the mentality of getting a pitch to hit.
"He wanted to change my stance and my preparation — standing a little more upright and having my back a little straighter, and that gives me some more leverage and I can hit the ball a little more out front and that gives me better trajectory, especially to the opposite field," Mancini said. "It helped me tremendously. I would say my power numbers have definitely improved right after that."
Anderson could tell Mancini was able to hit. He just needed a little guidance, and a little unconventional thinking.
"I've been teaching guys for a long time, so you have to be really intuitive with your movement," Anderson said. "It was about strengthening him up, lengthening his swing. You hear that word and people are like, 'Lengthening his swing? But how do you create bat speed without distance?' So it was just some basics that didn't take very long. Hitters are meant to hit like that. They've already reached this professional hitter status. They're already good."
Mancini went on to have a breakout 2015 season, hitting .341/.375/.563 between High-A Frederick and Double-A Bowie, including a .359/.395/.586 slash line in 84 games for the Baysox to win the Eastern League batting title. He also found his power that year, hitting a career-high 21 homers while adding 43 doubles and 89 RBIs.
After another solid season last year, in which he hit 20 homers in 142 games, most of it spent at Triple-A Norfolk, Mancini received a memorable late-season taste of the majors as a September call-up. His first major league hit was a home run, and Mancini homered in each of his first three starts. He only played in five games, but he made the most of it, going 5-for-14 for a .357/.400/1.071 slash line.
"In some ways, it was a really quick 21/2 weeks and then other times it seemed like it was a really long time that I was up there," Mancini said of his big league call-up. "But it was the most enjoyable experience I've ever had. But it gives me a lot of confidence coming into this year compared to last year. Being a guy who was coming in here last year having been in Double-A the year before as an invitee, I was maybe a little overwhelmed before last year. It definitely gave me confidence. I still felt like I belonged last year, but I feel that way even more this year."
Though it was a small sample size, Mancini's debut served as a springboard into this season and cemented his place as the Orioles' most major league-ready prospect.
Mancini's path at first base is blocked by Chris Davis, who signed a club-record seven-year, $161 million deal in January 2016, but he projected to see regular at-bats as the Orioles' designated hitter against left-handed pitching. When the team re-signed Mark Trumbo to a three-year, $37.5 million deal this offseason to mainly serve as the DH, Mancini's future on this year's club became more unclear.
Add in a glut of outfielders, including left-handed platoon bats in Hyun Soo Kim and Seth Smith, Rule 5 picks Aneury Tavarez and Anthony Santander, and veterans Michael Bourn and Craig Gentry — and Mancini looks like the victim of a full-fledged Opening Day roster crunch. Though he has an outfield glove and shags balls there during batting practice, the Orioles have made it clear that there are no plans to experiment with him there.
"It's something you have to be aware of," Mancini said of the lack of roster spots this spring. "You don't make too much of it, but it doesn't hurt to know that there are maybe one or two spots and that's it. But I'm working hard every day to try to be that guy who gets it."
Realizing he would have to fight for a roster spot this season, Mancini — a Winter Haven, Fla., native who attended Notre Dame — moved to Nashville for the offseason to work out at Vanderbilt. For a second straight offseason, he went to Southern California to work out with Anderson for a week.
Mancini's play this spring will help determine whether he opens the year in Baltimore or in the minors. But the Orioles realize it's a fine line between allowing him continue to grow in a limited role at the major league level versus getting everyday seasoning at Triple-A .
"We're going to try to do what's best for the Baltimore Orioles, but what's best for Trey Mancini is what's best for us," manager Buck Showalter said. "He's got a chance to make this club. Does he have anything else to [learn] in Triple-A? Sure. We all do. He could benefit from that, but he's got a chance to make our club. I don't know what else a guy can do to warrant a look and get a chance."
Where it began
It's not difficult to see Mancini's strong pedigree. His draft stock dropped because a shoulder injury forced him to miss playing in the Cape Cod League before his junior year. He then sputtered early in his junior season at Notre Dame before coming on strong in the second half. He ended up leading the Big East in hitting, and when the Orioles drafted him in the eighth round in 2013, Mancini — realizing how quickly a player's draft stock can fluctuate — decided to turn pro.
"A lot of people don't realize that he was one of the best players in the country," said Pat Connaughton, a former baseball teammate of Mancini's at Notre Dame who was also drafted by the Orioles but is playing in the NBA for the Portland Trail Blazers. "He got hurt during his Cape league season, so not many people were able to see him. In college, he battled injury here and there and it kind of caused him to drop in the draft.
"… I kind of expected this from him, and all the things that he's doing are the things he's capable of. I think that if and when he gets a consistent opportunity, he should keep getting that confidence."
Mancini posted a .298 batting average in his first two seasons in the minors, but didn't find his power until the 2015 season.
The next step
After his first big league spring training last year — he was in camp for about three weeks before being sent to minor league camp — Mancini was assigned back to Double-A to open the season. He acknowledged he was disappointed about not getting a promotion, but the Orioles had several first basemen at Norfolk. And Mancini made sure he wasn't in Bowie long, hitting seven homers in 17 games to earn a promotion to Norfolk by the end of April.
"You kind of look back and I can understand why they did it," Mancini said. "I spent a decent amount of time in 2015 in High-A, and it was just about getting some more games. I think I played 100 Double-A games over that time. It was about getting experience at that level and it did help.
"The Double-A team were all the guys I came up with in the organization, so it was nice. I had that comfortability factor with them at the start of the year and it kind of helped me and propelled me to take some of that momentum into Norfolk. You always want to start at the highest possible level, but in that sense, it was disappointing at the time but I definitely understand why I was sent there."
That's how the Orioles could look at the prospect of sending Mancini to the minors after this spring training. But Mancini already played in 125 games at the Triple-A level last season.
"That's conventional thinking," Showalter said. "In today's game, these guys move so fast. It's not that big a jump in level. The pitchers are more experienced in Triple-A. They do a lot of things to get yourself out. There's more pure stuff maybe in Double-A. But he's solid here, too.
Anderson said the numbers Mancini has put up in the minors show he's a major league hitter, noting that there are great players — Orioles star third baseman Manny Machado was a .269 hitter in the minors, for example — who didn't have that kind of success in the minors.
"I think he's been prepared for years," Anderson said. "You look at the year he had two years ago. … Just go back 10 years, how many guys in the last 10 years, current major leaguers, have hit .340 with 40 doubles and 20 homers? It's hard to find. It's not normal. … Sixty extra-base hits in five months, that's not something many people are ever able to do.
"There's always more you can learn [in the minors]. The at-bats help, especially if you're having quality at-bats. So just getting the experience and getting the at bats is always beneficial. But in my opinion, he's a major league hitter right now, and has been for years."
Mancini will see plenty of playing time in early Grapefruit League games this year. He started at first base in all five of the Orioles' road games going into this weekend. He went into Saturday's game in Port Charlotte 6-for-17 with two doubles and three RBIs.
He realizes he performance this spring will determine where he starts this season.
"You can't get too high on anything you do," Mancini said. "No matter what you do, you come back the next year and it's a clean slate. You've got to keep going out and performing year after year. I know that what I've done up to this point is great, but at the same time it's not good enough to just let me kind of waltz onto the team.
"I've got to keep working hard. I know I've still got a lot to improve in that regard, and I'm still trying to do that."