The comments were made in jest and thousands of miles away from Baltimore. By former members of the Orioles organization who saw a perfect marriage between one of their players and the rebuilding team they left behind.
Never did they imagine that it would actually come true.
The Orioles claimed Jorge Mateo on waivers a month ago and he’s reached base in 24 of his 25 starts, with a walk and his 10th stolen base last night. His name keeps appearing in the lineup, which the Padres couldn’t do before he was designated for assignment.
Ryan Flaherty was a utility infielder with the Orioles from 2012-17 after they chose him in the Rule 5 draft. Bobby Dickerson was third base coach and infield instructor on former manager Buck Showalter’s staff and Wayne Kirby was first base coach and outfield instructor. Dickerson and Kirby lasted one more year than Flaherty in Baltimore.
They’ve been reunited in San Diego.
They knew exactly where Mateo would get the best opportunity.
“Obviously, when people first see him they notice his tools right away because they stick out above league average pretty much in everything,” said Flaherty, a major league advance scout and development coach. “But the one thing was, it was hard to get rid of him because he had a niche on this team. He was really well-liked by the guys. It was just a tough situation.
“We would joke - me, Bobby, Kirb - saying the best thing for him as a player would be to go to the Orioles and be able to get 500, 600 at-bats, and then sure enough it ended up happening.”
It’s been 96 so far, but Mateo looks like a keeper. Like a player who will compete for a job in spring training.
“I’ve often made comments that, what I would have done with him, and we couldn’t because of where we are as an organization, he should just go out to shortstop and play it every day. Put him at shortstop, play him every day,” said Dickerson, who serves as a bench and third base coach.
“He’s talented, he plays shortstop in winter ball, he’s always an All-Star. And just grind through those days. But we were in a situation where, obviously, with Fernando Tatis Jr. and Jake Cronenworth and Manny Machado, he was like way down on the list as far as opportunity.”
Despite a resume that includes his selection as a Top 100 prospect for three years.
“Here he is, a guy who was a big-time guy with the Yankees at one point, a key piece in multiple trades,” Dickerson said. “Just one of those situations where we’re more about winning now and you lose those opportunities as far as at-bats. Over there, I know he’s doing well, but he’s getting consecutive at-bats and finding his timing and rhythm.
“He can change the game with speed, for sure. He’s got some sock in his bat. And a great kid, well-liked in our clubhouse. All the guys still text him and keep including him in everything. He’s really well-liked.”
“It’s just one of those things,” Flaherty said, “where trying to break through in the league on a team that was going to the playoffs wasn’t necessarily the best thing for him and he needed a chance to go play where a team would give him a chance to play and develop at the major league level.”
Mateo made his 11th start at shortstop last night. He’s also started 12 games at second base, one in left field and one in right, and played seven innings at third base.
The Orioles want to base the majority of their evaluations on his work in the middle infield.
“I believe he can do both,” Dickerson said. “I believe an infield spot is an infield spot, with so much movement with the positioning now. The only difference with taking ground balls and all these different things is the responsibility of the position. You’ve got to have a little better clock management when you’re on the left side of the diamond than the right side. But otherwise, ground balls are similar.
“If you’ve got arm strength to make the play on the left side, then you can play there, and he does.”
Flaherty knows a thing or two about versatility, which kept him in the majors. He did everything except play center field and catch.
“I think he can play multiple positions, and regularly play multiple positions,” Flaherty said. “Obviously, with his skill set he could be a utility guy, but I do think he has the ability to play shortstop every day, or play second base every day, and be an above-average defender at that one position if his bat allows him to do that.”
No one questions Mateo’s tools, just whether he can play up to them.
He’s finally found a team that, apparently, is willing to find out. That is equipped to hold the audition.
“His speed, his power, he’s really got a great arm,” Flaherty said. “He’s just got tools that he’s blessed with that, if he puts it together, he can be an impactful player, for sure, and a game-changing player. Which is why, honestly, we tried to hold onto him as long as we did. He went stretches longer than I did in Baltimore without playing, and they did not want to get rid of this guy because the Padres knew he has a chance to be an impactful player, and they tried. It was just, the way the roster was, there weren’t a ton of at-bats for him, or even pinch-hit opportunities for him here.
“There happened to be two or three other utility players that were getting some of the pinch-hit opportunities. It was just one of those things where the best thing for him and the best thing for another team that was going to get him, like the Orioles, was ... It’s a hidden gem and a chance, and really, anything could happen to this kid in his career.”