Shintaro Fujinami needed an out, and he needed it badly.
After plunking two straight batters to force in a pair of runs, Fujinami finally found the strike zone and induced a weak grounder to shortstop. A disastrous sixth inning seemed mercifully close to a conclusion.
But the ball bounced off Jorge Mateo’s glove and into center field, bringing home another run for Toronto. It was the eighth error of the season for Mateo, who also went hitless in two at-bats, and it put the final nail in a 4-1 Orioles loss Wednesday.
Meanwhile, down in Norfolk, infield prospect Joey Ortiz continued his earth-scorching season, collecting five hits, including two doubles, in a doubleheader against Charlotte. The 25-year-old raised his batting average to .358 in 61 games with Baltimore’s Triple-A affiliate.
Ortiz hasn’t just warmed Mateo’s seat — he’s set it on fire.
Mateo’s value to the O’s has always been in the field and on the basepaths. But his defensive metrics have dipped in 2023, and his struggles at the plate, coupled with Ortiz’s dominance over minor league competition, have made it difficult to justify Mateo’s regular playing time.
Blunders like the one Tuesday are not a new phenomenon for Mateo, whose 17 errors in 2022 were tied for fifth most in Major League Baseball. But they were far easier to stomach last season, when the former top-100 prospect built a highlight reel of astonishing plays to mitigate the pain of those gaffes.
But those Gold Glove-caliber plays have occurred less frequently this year, and Mateo’s defensive metrics now portray a good, not great, shortstop. Statcast puts the 28-year-old in the 76th percentile in outs above average, a 21-point dip from a year ago. After racking up 14 defensive runs saved in 2022, according to FanGraphs, Mateo has just four in 2023 – granted in about half the innings.
We got just a short glimpse of Ortiz’s highly touted defensive chops during his 15 games in Baltimore this season. But MLB Pipeline gives him a 65-grade fielding tool (on a 20-80 scale), and the former fourth-round pick has experience at second and third base, along with shortstop, throughout his professional career.
It would be a stretch to say Ortiz would be an improvement over Mateo on defense. But the drop-off might be minimal, if there is any.
What cannot be argued is Mateo’s inadequacy on offense since the end of April, a month when he mashed six home runs. Mateo has been held homerless since the season’s first month, though, collecting just eight extra-base hits with a batting average of .158 in that span. The only area of optimism can be found in his .295 batting average against left-handers.
Though Ortiz hit just .212 in his first taste of the big leagues, he now boasts a .983 on-base-plus-slugging in 87 career Triple-A games. He’s quieted scouts’ concerns about his ability to hit for average and power at every rung of the minor league ladder.
With 25 stolen bases, Mateo is still a threat, and while Ortiz has swiped nine bags with the Tides, he does not have game-tilting speed.
In deciding not to trade Ortiz before Tuesday’s deadline, general manager and Executive Vice President Mike Elias showed just how much the organization values its eighth-ranked prospect, per Baseball America. But it’s become clear there’s little Ortiz can gain from more at-bats against the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp and the Memphis Redbirds.
There are long-term roster considerations at play. Mateo is out of minor league options, meaning Baltimore would have to designate him for assignment to remove him from the roster — meaning he could be claimed by another team. Ortiz, meanwhile, can be optioned to the minors only once more this season before he reaches his limit under the collective bargaining agreement.
The Orioles’ bottleneck of talent has often been framed as “a good problem to have.” But good problems are still problems, and they require a solution. A decision on Mateo will have to be made at some point, and perhaps some point soon.