As Jorge Mateo limped off the field Wednesday night in Washington, the conversations probably began almost immediately around the Orioles’ front office:
Who’s up next?
In Joey Ortiz and Jordan Westburg, two top-100 prospects who can play shortstop and provide some pop in the Orioles’ lineup, there are no bad options when it comes to potentially replacing Mateo (who left Wednesday’s game with what was later described as hip pain.)
The one they decide on, if it comes to that, probably depends on circumstance. It’s worth examining the the decision, if only because it sheds some light on where the team is in the rebuild, and the choices that will have to be made in the near future.
The similarities are probably easiest to cover when it comes to these particular prospects. Both Ortiz and Westburg are 24-year-old, right-handed hitting shortstops who, because of the Orioles’ infield depth, have experience at second and third, as well. They both broke out offensively last year. Westburg earned organizational player of the year honors with an .857 OPS and 27 home runs in the high minors, while Ortiz changed the starting position of his hands in his batting stance midway through what had been a difficult season at Double-A Bowie and hit 15 home runs with a 1.026 OPS from July 1 on.
But what they would offer the Orioles in this circumstance differs depending on the player. Ortiz, it should be mentioned, was on call to join the Orioles this weekend when Ramón Urías got drilled in the neck with a pitch. Considering he is already on the 40-man roster and Westburg was dealing with a sore back at that time, he would have been the obvious solution at the time for a short-term replacement.
If Thursday’s Norfolk matinee was an audition, he’d have the upper hand, too, with a pair of hits and strong play at shortstop as Westburg was out of the lineup. But Thursday only brought him to 155 Triple-A plate appearances. They’ve been good ones — he has a .964 OPS with 18 extra-base hits in 38 games over two seasons for Norfolk — but the Orioles’ standard for promotion from Triple-A is a high one, experience-wise.
Adley Rutschman had 200 plate appearances at the level, but perhaps would have been deemed “ready” without returning to Norfolk in 2022 with 157 plate appearances if he was healthy for opening day last year. Gunnar Henderson had 250 plate appearances on the button before he was called up.
Among those who aren’t top-tier prospects, Terrin Vavra had 173 Triple-A plate appearances (wedged around a two-month stint on the injured list) and, perhaps most importantly, was already on the 40-man roster when he debuted in late July 2022. Kyle Stowers came up as a COVID replacement last June but had 430 plate appearances when he was formally added to the roster in August. A year earlier, Jahmai Jones had 290 Triple-A plate appearances, albeit with a .728 OPS, before he came up.
Still, the Orioles could look past Ortiz’s lack of at-bats and decide adding his infield defense — which is regarded as the system’s best — to the mix is worth it. They’ll probably be considering how he’d be used as well. If it’s a short-term issue for Mateo, adding Ortiz and having him be up temporarily without adding Westburg to the 40-man roster could be attractive. But the buzz around Bowie last year was, in addition to his swing change, that Ortiz took off in the second half in part because he didn’t have to move around the infield like he did when Westburg and Henderson were also in Bowie. He got to play shortstop consistently, and that translated offensively as well.
It would make sense for the Orioles to maintain their infield balance, particularly as Gunnar Henderson works out his throwing kinks at third, so Ortiz could be slotted in as shortstop pretty frequently if he’s called up.
Westburg could too, of course. He has far more time in Triple-A — 411 plate appearances between this season and last — with an impressive .859 OPS.
While Ortiz missed a chunk of spring training after taking a tough chopper to his head and entering the concussion protocol, Westburg was out there impressing seemingly every day until camp broke, and the perception is he was the next man up. He also beat Ortiz and fellow infield prospect Connor Norby to Norfolk, and has a head start over them to get to the majors.
His .777 OPS to start this season means he’s not in the best current form, though, and that’s not all that’s going against him. Considering he’s not on the 40-man roster, someone would need to come off to make room for him unless Mateo’s injury is a serious one that will keep him out for long enough to bring the 60-day injured list into play. Anyone the Orioles take off the roster and pass through waivers will probably be claimed — that’s the talent level in this organization at this point.
But this isn’t about adding a relief arm to get through a game — it’s about adding a consensus top-100 prospect to the roster to fill a need and begin his process of getting used to the big leagues. Adding him to the roster shouldn’t be an obstacle if the Orioles deem Westburg the best player to potentially replace Mateo.
That decision, if it needs to be made, would ultimately be a tight one. General manager Mike Elias and his team probably are hoping Mateo —who has been the best version of himself at the plate so far this season and, as a result, one of the most valuable players in baseball — isn’t out long.
If there’s bad news on that front, though, the good news is there are good options to replace him. I suppose the Orioles could even add an outfielder, instead, because they still have Henderson, Adam Frazier, Ramón Urías, and Terrin Vavra for three infield spots; Henderson and Urías can both play shortstop.
At this stage in the Orioles’ competitive process, the players on the major league roster are good enough to keep prospects in the minors until the opportunity arises. This absolutely would count as the opportunity Westburg or Ortiz have been waiting for — but it would also lead to a difficult decision.
For once, the tough decision is actually going to be a fun one.