At this point a year ago, Ryan Mountcastle was preparing for a spring that would take him to new positions and effectively function as an introduction to the new front office and field staff that had recently arrived in Baltimore. This spring, the Orioles will meet Mountcastle in Sarasota, Fla., with the expectation that he'll join them up north in short order.
“Playing in Triple-A, playing against a lot of veteran guys, I learned a lot,” Mountcastle said recently at MLB/MLBPA’s Rookie Career Development Program in Miami. “Learned a lot about my game and how to handle baseball up there in the higher levels. I picked up some things on guys in the clubhouse and stuff I saw from other players, too. But at the end of the day, I think I played pretty well and I’m excited for this coming year.”
Unlike last year, there isn’t much doubt that Mountcastle -- barring health -- will play in the big leagues at some point this season. The questions are when and where. There is little incentive for the Orioles to take Mountcastle with them for Opening Day and risk losing a year of team control at a time when they are still deeply into their rebuilding process.
Then there is the issue of his position. A converted shortstop turned third baseman, Mountcastle played predominantly first base last season while sprinkling in time at left field and the hot corner. He’s expected to see opportunities in right field and second base this spring as well.
“I don’t think any of us have had a personal look at it, but it’s something that we might try to mix in here and there,” Orioles GM Mike Elias said in December. “I don’t think any of us project him as an everyday second baseman defensively, but it might be something that he’s capable of doing.”
At the Winter Meetings earlier in December, Elias said this about Mountcastle’s defensive situation: “He’s in a weird spot right now where he can play a number of positions, but he hasn’t really mastered any one of those. We’ve got to figure out which way to steer that in the early going. We want him to be able to play in the infield and outfield but also need to ramp up his outfield experience.”
The Orioles’ goal is to create opportunities for Mountcastle’s bat, which few doubt is near Major League ready. That is the tool that’s allowed Mountcastle to rise steadily through their system since they selected him 36th overall in the 2015 Draft, and it blossomed in his first exposure to Triple-A last season.
Mountcastle, who turns 23 in February, hit .312/.344/.527 with 25 home runs and 83 RBIs in 127 games at Triple-A Norfolk, pacing International League batters in hits and total bases. He also ranked in the top five in runs and doubles.
“Defensively, I’m learning some new positions to get more comfortable,” Mountcastle said. “Hitting-wise, trying to get on base, trying to score runs. Helping my team win is my main goal.”
If there is a rub on Mountcastle’s offensive game, it’s a lopsided strikeout-to-walk ratio (130/24 in 2019) that could prove problematic against pitching at the highest level. But at this point, that is where most of Mountcastle’s chances on improving his plate discipline are likely to come. He is going to get a longer look this spring than last, when he was always ticketed to spend the entire year at Norfolk. And whether he tears the cover off the ball or not, the Orioles are unlikely to let him languish in Norfolk for another whole summer.
Mountcastle, ranked the No. 4 prospect in Baltimore's system, is one of six of the Orioles’ top 15 prospects -- along with outfielder Austin Hays (No. 6), right-hander Dean Kremer (No. 8), southpaw Keegan Akin (No. 11), outfielder Ryan McKenna (No. 13) and righty Hunter Harvey (No. 15) -- who shouldn’t only reach the Majors in 2020, but could play a key role there. Perhaps even righties Michael Baumann and Zac Lowther or outfielder Yusniel Diaz might debut if everything clicks.
The arrival of Mountcastle in particular figures to impact a roster heavy in bat-first corner types, and to which highly priced slugger Chris Davis remains rooted. The two are related, if not connected, in the club’s plans; any decision the Orioles make on Mountcastle will affect Davis, whether in regards to role or roster status.
In 2020, it’s a dynamic the Orioles will probably be faced with sooner rather than later.
“Every part of my game, I want to work on,” Mountcastle said. “Wherever I fit into the lineup, whatever helps the team win, I’m going to do it. And I’m going to work hard.”