The Orioles are drawing interest from other clubs in shortstop Jorge Mateo, reports Ken Rosenthal of the Athletic. The specific teams in contact with Baltimore aren’t clear, although he’s a natural fallback target for clubs that haven’t addressed the position via free agency.
A former top prospect in the Yankees and Oakland farm systems, Mateo at times can be undone by an overaggressive approach at the plate. He’s walked in fewer than 5% of his MLB plate appearances while striking out nearly 28% of the time, leading to a dismal .271 career on-base percentage. Things were even more extreme this past season, as his .267 OBP topped only that of Jonathan Schoop and Cody Bellinger among hitters with 500+ plate appearances.
While Mateo doesn’t have an especially well-rounded skillset, he tapped into the physical gifts that made him a high-end prospect this year. After bouncing from the A’s to the Padres, the 27-year-old landed in Baltimore late in 2021 via waiver claim. He got his first everyday run at the major league level this past season. Mateo’s plate discipline profile was ghastly, but he demonstrated his top-tier athleticism. He stole an AL-best 35 bases in 44 attempts, showcasing the speed that garnered top-of-the-scale grades when he was a prospect.
As Rosenthal points out, that kind of athleticism could be particularly appealing in light of the rules changes going into effect for the 2023 season. MLB is instituting a limit on the number of times a pitcher can step off the mound in a plate appearance and enlarging the bases, both of which should at least moderately incentivize base-stealing.
The league is also instituting limitations on defensive shifting, requiring clubs to keep two infielders on either side of the second base bag and four players on the infield dirt. Teams could place more of a premium on athletic defenders as a result, since it’ll be more difficult to compensate for players who have below-average range via strategic positioning.
Mateo thrived defensively this year, posting top-tier marks in over 1250 innings at shortstop. Defensive Runs Saved pegged him as 14 runs above average at the position, the third-highest mark in MLB. Statcast estimated Mateo at eight runs above par, tying him for fourth among shortstops. He showcased both high-end range and above-average arm strength and looks to have emerged as a plus defender.
Maintaining that kind of defensive production will be critical for Mateo unless he takes a significant step forward in his offensive development. This year’s .211/.267/.379 line was 18 percentage points worse than average, by measure of wRC+. His baserunning means he’s not completely a glove-only player, but he’ll need to sustain high-end defensive marks to remain valuable with such tepid output at the plate. That Mateo is attracting interest from other teams in spite of his offense is a testament both to his secondary skills and the scarcity of alternatives.
The star-studded free agent shortstop class was one of the stories of the offseason. All four of the top players — Carlos Correa, Trea Turner, Xander Bogaerts and Dansby Swanson — ended up changing teams. That somewhat surprising amount of shuffling leads to the Twins, Dodgers, Red Sox and Braves having to identify new solutions to replace their outgoing stars.
All four clubs have some internal possibilities, but none are ideal situations. Minnesota acquired Kyle Farmer from the Reds as a stopgap option, while Royce Lewis is expected back midseason after his tearing the ACL in his right knee for a second straight year. The Dodgers can move Gavin Lux from second base to shortstop while relying on some combination of Max Muncy, Chris Taylor and prospects like Jacob Amaya or Miguel Vargas at the keystone. Lux is a former top prospect coming off a productive .276/.346/.399 showing, but his below-average arm strength could be a concern on the left side of the infield.
Boston has a somewhat similar situation, with Trevor Story currently likely to move back to shortstop from second base. The longtime Rockie was a plus defender at shortstop for a while, but he also has a below-average arm at this stage of his career. The Sox don’t have as strong a collection of internal second base options as L.A. does, with Christian Arroyo looking to be the favorite for playing time if Enrique Hernández stays in center field. The Braves have utilityman Orlando Arcia and rookie Vaughn Grissom — who has played 63 career games above High-A and comes with defensive question marks from prospect evaluators — as their internal candidates.
It’s sensible all four teams could explore the market for shortstop help, and clubs like the Angels and Diamondbacks could check in as well. Free agency is largely picked through at this point, with Elvis Andrus standing out as the top option remaining. José Iglesias offers a high-contact depth option and Andrelton Simmons is still an excellent defender, but neither profiles as a regular for a hopeful contender.
Trade possibilities also seems sparse. The Guardians could perhaps listen to offers on Amed Rosario for his final season of arbitration control. There’s been no indication this offseason they’re planning to do so, however. The Brewers are reportedly informing teams they’re not dealing Willy Adames; the same is true of the White Sox with Tim Anderson. Players like Nick Ahmed or Nicky Lopez could be dealt, but they’re defense-only types who’d be below-average everyday players for a win-now team.
Mateo is projected by MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz for a $1.8MM salary during his first season of arbitration eligibility. He’ll go through the process twice more before hitting the open market after the 2025 campaign. That extended window of control means the Orioles don’t have to deal him, and there’s no indication they’re actively shopping him. Baltimore’s rebuild is in the rearview mirror, and Mateo’s modest arbitration salary isn’t placing any financial pressure on the organization.
There’s logic for general manager Mike Elias and his staff to entertain trade offers, though, particularly if they’re wary of Mateo’s ability to maintain his 2022 pace with the glove. The lack of other options for teams desperate for shortstop help could increase their sense of urgency to pursue him, while Baltimore has a number of prospects they hope will eventually unseat him as the franchise shortstop.
Gunnar Henderson debuted at the end of the season, primarily working at third base in deference to Mateo. The O’s could roll with a left side infield of Mateo and Henderson while having Ramón Urías and the recently-signed Adam Frazier share reps at second base. Baltimore has highly-regarded prospects Jordan Westburg and Joey Ortiz just behind that group, with both players coming off quality seasons for Triple-A Norfolk. Westburg and Ortiz — the latter of whom is already on the 40-man roster — could each find themselves in the majors fairly early in the 2023 campaign, and both are regarded by various prospect evaluators as potential everyday shortstops.