The Baltimore Orioles are getting an unexpectedly good season from a slugger the rest of the league was tepid about. What else is new?
A couple things, actually: The first and most interesting one is that Trey Mancini, the team’s new corner outfielder/designated hitter/occasional first baseman isn’t a castoff from another organization that the Orioles traded for or snapped up in the offseason. The previous players filling this role — Chris Davis, Nelson Cruz, and Mark Trumbo — all came from outside the organization, and all experienced a significant increase in profile and production after joining the Orioles. (This is arguable in Cruz’s case, but his year with Baltimore was the beginning of the current phase of his career, wherein he has tried to reproduce David Ortiz’s late-career surge in production while primarily staying off the field.)
Mancini is a product of the Baltimore system, taken in the eighth round of the 2013 amateur draft out of the Notre Dame baseball program. He’s never been much of a national prospect; he’s never appeared on a major Top-100 list, and to the extent that he’s been a featured prospect in the Orioles’ system, it has been because the Orioles’ system is not very good.
As a college player he was expected to progress through the ranks quickly, and a lackluster 2014 in A ball probably stemmed any lingering hopes the national prospect rankers had for Mancini — a .735 OPS for the season from a guy drafted because of his advanced college bat in the lowest levels of the minors did him few favors. However, he rebounded with an excellent 2015 that sped him through Double- and Triple-A ball, and now he’s in the majors. Mancini is crushing it.
He has a 1.026 OPS through 28 career major-league games, split between the end of last year and the beginning of this year. His second big-league PA ended with a home run, and he has hit 10 home runs in 94 career plate appearances in the majors. To the extent that he has shown any platoon weakness during his tear through major-league pitching, it’s that he has an OPS of “only” .902 against left-handed pitching, versus 1.246 against righties; he has hit five of his 10 home runs off each hand, and while there might be platoon concerns when he comes back down to earth — specifically when it comes to his OBP, not his slugging — it’s worth noting that as a right-handed batter, these are actually reverse platoon splits.
So why haven’t the Orioles outright handed him a starting job? He has managed to get into only 23 of Baltimore’s 34 games so far this year, though his playing time has increased as the season has gained momentum. There are a couple reasons for this. First and foremost, the Orioles have a lot of players like him — big strong guys whose major contribution to the team is hitting the ball a long way. One of them, Chris Davis, is the incumbent first baseman, and he has a contract which says he won’t be benched as long as he produces even a reasonable amount at the plate; another, Mark Trumbo, just got paid this offseason and is theoretically the starting right fielder, though he’s better served as a designated hitter. Then there’s Seth Smith, whom the Orioles acquired from the Seattle Mariners for Yovani Gallardo in a deal that’s looking like a disaster for Seattle.
Smith, who has a .933 OPS to start the year and is an excellent, established platoon bat against right-handed pitching, has spent more innings in the outfield this year than Trumbo. He is the team’s lead-off man when the opposing starting pitcher throws right-handed.
Finally there’s poor Hyun-Soo Kim, who has watched his playing time dwindle to bench-warmer levels with Mancini’s ascension; Kim was theoretically the starting left fielder going into camp, but has played in only 17 games for the Orioles this year thanks to the sheer number of guys riding the corner outfield/designated hitter carousel. There’s also Joey Rickard, the speedy, gritty Rule 5 pick from last year, to account for when it comes to left field.
Mancini has a lot of competition for at-bats, competition he’s successfully fought off so far due to his great performance. However, that performance is itself another concerning attribute for Mancini — it’s his entire game. Mancini is a converted first baseman who is barely able to keep his head above water in right field and is no great shakes on the base paths; his value as a major-league player lives and dies based on his line at the plate. Should he start slumping, he won’t still make it into games based on his defensive prowess or his speed — he has none of that.
Mancini is a player constantly on the precipice; as long as he’s hitting, everything is great and he’s a valuable player in a major-league lineup. But as soon as that production falls below the league average, he’s a replacement-level player.
Mancini shouldn’t continue to hit like this forever; that’s not the profile his bat has. If he does, of course, he has A.L. Rookie of the Year wrapped up and should grab downballot MVP votes — and he is a sixth of the way there already. More likely, however, Mancini will return to earth. Where he establishes his equilibrium as a hitter will tell us whether or not he’s a major-league player.
The fans call him “Boom Boom,” which is at least better than, say, “T-Man.” There’s a reason for it, too: Those long doubles and dingers are why he’s in the big leagues. As long as he keeps hitting them, he’ll stick around and get the accolades, lineup spot, and shirsey nights that come with them.
If he falters, well… at least Hyun-Soo Kim can take a walk.