Many Orioles fans were not happy when the team failed to re-sign free agent slugger Nelson Cruz after his big 2014 season in Baltimore. It was a year where he led the majors in homers and the Orioles fell one step shy of the World Series.
It was hard for fans to see Cruz go. The Orioles’ consolation prize at the time was a compensatory draft pick, No. 36 overall, in the June draft in 2015. The Orioles selected a high school infielder from Florida named Ryan Mountcastle.
Now one of the club’s top prospects, if Mountcastle can go on to have a solid big league career, then the Orioles’ one-year deal for Cruz would pay off more than originally thought.
Mountcastle posted a very solid offensive season last year at 21 for Double-A Bowie. In fact, his numbers from 2018 compare well, and in a few categories, to what Manny Machado did for the Baysox at 19 in 2012. Their games played (Machado 109, Mountcastle 102) and plate appearances (Machado 459, Mountcastle 428) were very comparable.
Machado at Bowie: 266/.352/.438 with 11 homers, 59 RBIs and a .789 OPS
Mountcastle at Bowie: .297/.341/.464 with 13 homers, 59 RBIs and a .806 OPS
Mountcastle finished seventh in the Eastern League in average, 22nd in OBP, ninth in slugging and 11th in OPS. A year earlier, he first got to Bowie at 20 after tearing up the Single-A Carolina League in 2017. He played in just 88 games with Frederick before his promotion to Double-A, but he still led that league in extra-base hits at season’s end and won the batting title. In 2018, he played in the Eastern League All-Star Game and the All-Star Futures Game at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., in July.
Mountcastle was a non-roster invitee to O’s spring training in 2018 and is again this year, and will report to Sarasota and the Ed Smith Stadium complex next month.
“It means a lot,” he said of the spring invite during FanFest. “It means they are looking at me as one of the guys that can maybe help produce up there, in my opinion. And I’m grateful for the opportunity.”
But of course, since any interview with Mountcastle, it seems, must start or eventually lead to his defense, which scouts rate below average, this one did, too. Moved to third base from short when he was promoted to Bowie in 2017, a reporter asked him how many gloves he is bringing to Florida next month.
“I mean, I’ve got my third base glove and that’s what I’m using right now. Whatever they want to do with me. I want to play third base and think I can produce there,” he said, adding he felt he had improved at third in several areas last season.
“Honestly, just everything. Mentally, physically. My footwork, I felt like, got a lot better because I had only played third about a month and half the year before. Just getting more comfortable with the throws and all the footwork and I feel a lot better over there right now.”
For the second winter in a row, Mountcastle is a national top 100 prospect. He is ranked No. 51 by Baseball Prospectus (up from No. 65 last year). He’s No. 71 on MLBPipeline.com (up from No. 98) and he’s No. 90 on Baseball America (down from No. 71 last winter).
At one point last spring, then-O’s manager Buck Showalter challenged Mountcastle to draw more walks - and he did. His walk rate improved to a career-best 6.1 percent. Still plenty of room for improvement there, but his strikeout rate of 18.5 was second-lowest of his minor league career. So he made some gains in the contact department.
“I’ve been an aggressive hitter my whole life, I like to swing the bat. But I know I had to work on that,” Mountcastle said. “I worked on my eye and trying to work some better counts. Just maturity and playing more games (helps with that). As opposed to going up there and taking this huge hack. I know I have to calm it down a little bit and just stay within myself.”
Maybe in 2018, we saw a young hitter with a lot of talent continue to take steps forward. We saw some player development. Bowie manager Gary Kendall told me after the season that he can see why some scouts feel Mountcastle could be a plus hitter in the majors for both average and power.
“I think he is very hitterish,” Kendall said. “He’s got very good bat speed, good hands and the ball jumps off his bat. He has the ability to hit the breaking ball the other way. A lot of it is created by bat speed. He’s got quick hands.
“I’ve seen guys that sometimes get a fastball by him, but when they go back to that spot again, they are not able to do it. It’s exciting. He’s a good-looking young hitter. He’s receptive to coaching. He brings a lot to the table and being so young, there is a lot more upside to this guy.”