Jorge Mateo made his 108th start at shortstop last night, his status as the position’s caretaker long ago established.
But what about 2023?
Gunnar Henderson is baseball’s No. 1 or 2 prospect, depending on the rankings, and his debut is coming. He played second base again last night with Triple-A Norfolk, his fifth consecutive game on the right side of the infield, including two at first base. But he’s a shortstop getting his footing at other spots for roster flexibility with the Orioles – if he is, indeed, promoted in 2022.
Beyond that, he’s always been projected as their shortstop unless Jordan Westburg pushed him to third. Or if Joey Ortiz pushed him to third.
It’s never been about Mateo, but now it must be, because, well, look at him.
Mateo began last night with the third-highest WAR among American League shortstops, according to Fangraphs.com, with only Xander Bogaerts and Corey Seager ahead of him. He was slashing .293/.342/.543 since July 1 and .316/.356/.582 since the All-Star break.
This is a legitimate sample size.
The Little League Classic spun in the Orioles’ favor Sunday night when Mateo stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and cleared them with a double, his first career go-ahead hit in the eighth inning or later.
Batting last night with Austin Hays on third base and two outs in the seventh, Mateo greeted reliever Jimmy Lambert with a single that extended the lead to 5-3. Mateo clapped his hands as he ran up the first base line. Delivering in the clutch again. No longer praised only for his plus-plus speed.
It still exists, of course. Mateo stole his 28th base in 35 attempts to lead the American League.
Mateo pulled the ball into the left field corner on Sunday and lined his single last night between third and short. But he’s really found success over the last few months by learning how to go the opposite way.
Games also are influenced by his play in the field.
Mateo enabled reliever Bryan Baker to strand an inherited runner from Austin Voth last night by making a sliding stop of AJ Pollock’s ground ball up the middle and flipping it to Terrin Vavra for the force.
Manager Brandon Hyde is endorsing Mateo’s Gold Glove candidacy. And he’s in agreement that the three-time top 100 prospect has earned the chance to remain in the shortstop conversation.
“He has to be, because he’s played as well defensively this year at shortstop as anybody in the league, and he’s just getting better offensively,” Hyde said. “We’re really happy with the progress he’s made, not only defense but definitely offensively, as well. He’s getting huge hits for us. He’s been a force at the bottom of the order, and it’s been an absolute pleasure.
“Love to see how he’s developed, and he’s just going to continue.”
The Orioles love to complicate things. The trade deadline by contending for a wild card berth. Their shortstop plans with Mateo’s emergence as an everyday player.
He isn’t playing like a placeholder or a utility guy. But does his surprising power enable him to shove baseball’s No. 1 or 2 prospect to another position?
* The Orioles seem confident that Tyler Wells will be activated from the injured list next month and assist in their quest for a playoff berth.
The question is how he’s going to be used.
Wells has gone from Rule 5 reliever to starter, but he might return to the bullpen. Those discussions will be held after his throwing progression moves to the next stage.
A rehab assignment is certain. Wells hasn’t pitched since July 27. But he can get back faster if he’s used in relief. The buildup obviously is shorter than stretching him out again to start.
We could be talking extra weeks.
* Félix Bautista is making a case for Rookie of the Year votes in the American League, with his ERA lowered to 1.68 last night after recording his ninth save. He’s struck out 71 batters in 53 2/3 innings, third-most on the team behind starters Jordan Lyles (119 in 138 2/3 innings) and Kyle Bradish (73 in 72 innings).
The Orioles believed in him over the winter, after putting him on the 40-man roster, and again while setting the opening day roster. And certainly after trading closer Jorge López to the Twins at the deadline.
“I think the trust is something that I’ve earned over the course of the season with the way that I’ve competed, the way I’ve pitched out there,” he said last night via interpreter Brandon Quinones. “And it’s helped my confidence in a sense, too. To just go out there and compete, I feel confident every time I go out there that I’m going to do a good job.”
He's living up to the light shows that accompany his entrances.
“I love seeing that the fans are really into the game when I come in,” he said, “and whenever we do something really good, it definitely gets our adrenaline going, and I think it helps me and helps our team as a whole when the fans get into the game and are there to support us and give us that energy.”
* Austin Voth won his fourth straight decision last night, allowing two runs over 5 2/3 innings.
Voth became the third Orioles pitcher to earn a team win in his first six home starts with the club, joining Jerry Walker from 1957-59 and Jimmy Key in 1997.
A pretty nice waiver claim, with Voth going 3-0 with a 2.40 ERA in his last six starts.