Though baseball has been put on pause due to the coronavirus pandemic, clubs remain free to sort out roster situations that were unresolved when Spring Training stopped. The Orioles operated with an eye toward that Thursday, optioning Ryan Mountcastle and three others to Triple-A Norfolk.
The club’s No. 4 prospect per MLB Pipeline, Mountcastle entered camp as Baltimore’s most advanced hitting prospect after winning International League Most Valuable Player honors at Norfolk in 2019. He spent most of his defensive time at left field and first base, impressing early but ultimately hitting .235 with one homer, no walks and a .647 OPS in 10 Grapefruit League games.
The focus for Mountcastle will be to continue getting comfortable in the field and improving plate discipline once the season starts down at Norfolk, where he’ll be joined by right-hander David Hess, outfielder Cedric Mullins and utility man Ramón Urías. All were optioned Thursday as well, slicing the Orioles’ remaining “camp” roster to 50.
“Normally we’d be having Spring Training right now and there would be the type of decisions that take place every day as spring winds down, and now we’re just frozen in time,” executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said on a conference call Thursday. “The moves you saw today, those were moves we had teed up at the time of the sudden cancellation of Spring Training. Like a lot of teams have this week, we went ahead and processed them, knowing at some point we’re going to get back here soon and playing, and if we do have another Spring Training-type atmosphere, it’s probably going to be short, and we still had a big camp roster we needed to whittle down in a hurry.”
A former starter who lost his rotation place last summer, Hess was hoping to take a step forward after spending this winter training under the guidance of St. Louis-based P3 Pitching Performance, the same data-driven lab John Means attended before breaking out last summer. But Hess had a middling spring a year after going 1-10 with a 7.09 ERA in 23 games (14 starts). The right-hander now profiles as a multi-inning bullpen piece and spot starter going forward.
The team’s Opening Day center fielder a year ago, Mullins finished 2019 down at Double-A Bowie after a nightmare first three months in the Majors and then at Norfolk. He spent several weeks retooling his swing at a separate St. Louis lab geared toward hitters this winter, then stole three bases early as the Orioles challenged their baserunners to be aggressive this spring. Mullins wound up hitting just .211 without an extra-base hit over 12 spring games, and figured to need more time at Norfolk to prove his 2019 struggles were a fluke. If he does, his wheels and defensive ability give the Orioles an element they lacked not only for long stretches last summer, but currently lack elsewhere on the outfield depth chart.
Urías, 25, was claimed off waivers by the Cardinals in early February but never entered the club’s utility battle in earnest due to a nagging case of shin splints. He appeared in just seven Grapefruit League games, hitting .182. Urías now profiles as one of several multi-positional infield options at Triple-A, where he’s spent each of the past two seasons.
The moves provide some potential roster clarity for the Orioles going forward, and would appear to clear paths for Andrew Velazquez and Pat Valaika, or possibly Richie Martin (utility), DJ Stewart and Dwight Smith Jr. (right field and fourth outfielder) as well as several other bullpen options to make the club in various roles.