Triple-A Norfolk manager Gary Kendall says Orioles prospect Ryan Mountcastle, who played mostly first base for the Tides in 2019, has shown enough positional versatility to fit on the same big-league roster as Chris Davis — and Kendall expects to see a more mature hitter this spring as well.
Mountcastle, who turns 23 next month, signed as a shortstop after he was drafted No. 36 overall by the Orioles in 2015. He stayed at the position until 2017, when he was forced to move off the position due to a lack of arm strength and range. He played third base for Double-A Bowie to finish out the 2017 season and all of 2018.
In 2019, Mountcastle moved up to Norfolk along with Kendall, who managed Mountcastle in Bowie from 2017-2018. He played 84 games at first base, 26 in left field and nine at third base. Do Mountcastle’s starts in left field, which came toward the end of the year, portend things to come in 2020?
“I don’t think we’ve written him off at first base in any way, but there are no guarantees that when Ryan goes to the big leagues that he will be a left fielder or a first baseman primarily,” Kendall said on The Bat Around With Stan “The Fan” Charles Jan. 25. “I think if anything, he’s helped his versatility by learning to play both positions. I know Ryan puts a lot of work into playing first base, and he made a lot of strides from when he left spring training to get there at the end of the season. He made a lot of strides at first base, but he also made some strides in left field.”
Mountcastle’s bat suggests he’ll be knocking on the big-league door when camp opens in February. The 2019 International League MVP, Mountcastle hit .312/.344/.527 with 25 home runs while playing in pitcher-friendly Harbor Park — though Triple-A was using last year’s lively major-league baseballs, which boosted offensive production across the level.
The trick will be finding a position for Mountcastle on the big-league team. Davis has three years left on a seven-year, $161 million contract and is likely limited to first base or designated hitter. Trey Mancini, last year’s team MVP, plays right field and first base. Renato Nunez, who hit 31 homers last year, was the club’s primary designated hitter in 2019 and returns in 2020.
That’s where left field comes in, though Anthony Santander (.476 slugging percentage, 20 homers) showed flashes last year. If Mountcastle can play solid defense in first and left, that’ll give him a wider array of opportunities regardless of who’s on the roster, according to Kendall.
“I think the organization’s going to kind of look at both, but I don’t think that should have anything to do with Chris,” Kendall said. “Hopefully, in a perfect world, if they both have fine seasons, they both can mesh and fit somewhere in that lineup.”
The questions won’t stop for Mountcastle once the Orioles find a spot for him. He owns a career .328 on-base percentage throughout his minor-league career; last year’s .344 was the highest single-season mark of his career. He’s also struck out 446 times and walked just 101 times in five seasons. The highest walk rate of his career came in 2018 (6.1%).
Those numbers suggest Mountcastle still has some work to do regarding his approach at the dish. The Orioles recently hosted 22 position players, including Mountcastle, in Sarasota, Fla. Kendall said “swing decisions” were a point of emphasis at the camp, something Kendall and his staff would talk to Mountcastle about last year.
Mountcastle tended to swing at too many pitchers’ pitches early in the count and get himself out last year, according to Kendall. The manager also said hitters sometimes get into swing mode in a 3-2 count instead of simply taking a walk when it presents itself.
“Nobody’s up there telling Ryan Mountcastle with the bases loaded if he gets a good hitting pitch to walk, so we didn’t want to get that misconstrued,” Kendall said. “We wanted him to be aggressive, but we wanted him to be aggressive in the strike zone.”
Kendall is confident Mountcastle can make the necessary improvements in his approach to make a leap forward with the bat in 2020, whether it’s with Norfolk or Baltimore.
“He’s going to be a much more refined hitter,” Kendall said. “He’s an intelligent guy. He has a knack to swing the bat, and I think there’s always going to be improvement from year to year with Ryan.”
Kendall touched on several other players as well …
Kendall managed Mancini with Bowie from 2015-2016, and he was confident Mancini had the work ethic to get the most out of his talent:
“You never know what kind of results you’re going to have up there as far the consistency. I could say this: I knew he had it in him, because I knew of the work ethic that he put into, how much time he put into his hitting approach, what he demanded upon himself. He had the makings of the hitter he is. But sometimes, we’ve all seen hitters that are earmarked for that great success and go up there and really just struggle and the league makes adjustments. Hitting is a series of nothing but adjustments, and that’s a tribute to Trey because I’m sure he’s gone up there with some deficiencies and he’s worked to be more well-rounded. When pitchers attack those spots that were his weaknesses, he’s managed to hold it together. What a consistent year last year and we were all really happy for him.”
Kendall managed Chance Sisco last year after the catcher hit well in spring training but didn’t make the big-league team out of camp. How did Sisco handle the demotion?
“We had a little talk, our staff and Chance at the beginning of the season prior to our first game. There was disappointment. He let us know that he would’ve liked to have been on the roster going north, but he knew what job lied ahead for him in Norfolk, and you didn’t see it in his play. I never saw him once where he showed discouragement on the field where he made comments. I never heard any kind of things coming from his direction, any negativity toward the organization. He understands. It’s fair. Spring training was never more fair, and the ballclub was picked the way they felt that it should’ve been picked, and he had to handle it. I hope that [this spring], he makes that ballclub.”
Kendall saw Hunter Harvey as a reliever with the Tides last year before Harvey’s big-league call-up. Kendall has also seen him as a starter in past year with Bowie. What’s the difference?
“Through Chris Holt, we came up with these set outings [for] when he was going to pitch [at Norfolk]. Right before he went to the big leagues, they wanted to see him in a back-to-back outing, which we did and he got through healthy. There were never any setbacks, really, in his health other than just the normal tenderness that you get as a pitcher. He was a dominant reliever in the league. I kind of liked what the organization did. First of all, here’s a guy that’s always had trouble staying healthy. Whether it’s starting or relieving down the road, I just looked at it — because I saw him at both — and I know [how the hitters] saw it when he came out of the bullpen. It was not a comfortable at-bat for a hitter.”
Kendall also managed Yusniel Diaz with the Baysox in 2018 after the outfielder was dealt the Orioles in the Manny Machado deal. He figures to manage Diaz with Norfolk in 2019:
“He’s an athletic guy that can really do a whole lot to affect your lineup because he has speed, he can defend, he can throw. He’s got a lot of tools. I just recently saw him down in Florida. I hadn’t seen him in almost a year. He’s bigger, he’s stronger. I thought he made a really good impression in spring training last year about how he played, so hopefully he can continue to progress the way we as an organization think he could. I know when he was [with Bowie] in ’18, there was some breaking ball issues, some decision-making with the swing that could’ve been a little better. Hopefully he can stay healthy because I know that was part of his problem last year at Double-A was staying healthy. Hopefully he’s in the mix at the big-league level and if he doesn’t make that club, hopefully he’s in Norfolk. I’m looking forward to the challenge of helping him.”
For more from Kendall, listen to the full interview here, which begins at the 1:06:00 mark:
Photo Credit: Scott Sears/Norfolk Tides