Jorge Mateo may have been demoted this week, but the New York Yankees still have high hopes for his value in the long-run.Despite the fact that Jorge Mateo was expected to climb a little in the New York Yankees farm system and start the 2017 season in Double-A Trenton, there is really nothing ominous about his assignment to Class-A Tampa.
With the rise of Didi Gregorius, the acquisition of stud prospect Gleyber Torres from the Chicago Cubs at the deadline and the glut of infield prospects, New York’s top prospect going into 2016 was no longer considered the future shortstop. The disappointing season didn’t help either.
In 113 games in Tampa, he slashed .254/.306/.379 with 36 stolen bases. Significantly worse than his combined .278/.345/.392 slash line and 82 stolen bases between Charleston and Tampa in 2015. His strikeout rate also jumped from 15.1 percent the previous year to 20.1 percent last year and his OBP diminished by 39 points while he popped the ball up way too much (0.68 groundouts/air outs, worst of MiLB career) for a kid with a speed grade of 80.
What made his most recent regular season performance even more disappointing, however, was that he received a midseason suspension and denied an appearance in the SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game for violating an undefined team policy.
But, he spent time in center field in instructional league and while he needed to learn the in-and-outs of manning the position, instructors said he looked like a natural which is presumably the reason why one of the most publicized prospects in the system is packing his bags for High-A.
He has yet to play in a minor league or spring training contest in center, but Tampa is unquestionably a great place to learn a new position and Mateo, who is still an uncommonly talented young prospect with an extremely high ceiling, has an encouraging blend of quickness and arm strength which should translate well to the center field. Considering how erratic his throws are from short, moving from the captain of the infield to the captain of the outfield honestly profiles him best.
“I thought he played a very good shortstop and a very good second base for us,” manager Joe Girardi said. “When you have the speed he does, the versatility, as I told him, when you have the talent level that you have, you start thinking about what’s the quickest way to get him here. A spot could open up one day in a different spot than what you’re used to playing and if you can play other places it might get you here quicker.”
It’s not an unordinary position switch. Cincinnati Reds’ outfielder Billy Hamilton, who also possessed 80-grade speed as a prospect, made the switch from the team’s High-A shortstop to center in the 2012 Arizona Fall League and by 2013, he had surpassed Triple-A Louisville en route to making his major league debut on September 9 of that same season. Since 2014, Hamilton has had a firm grasp of the starting center field job and has stolen the most bases (171) in major league baseball.
Like Hamilton, Mateo may be able to develop into a dynamic center fielder with a full year of consistent outfield play and proper growth into the position. High-A is a level in which Mateo has taken 548 at-bats in and unlike a promotion to Trenton, he won’t have to adapt to both the enhanced pitching and a brand-new position.
I don’t care what kind of ceiling a player contains, making both adjustments is a tall task. This isn’t the Yankees giving him a metaphorical back-hand slap. This isn’t an additional punishment based on his behavior last season. This is by no means a head-scratcher. Let’s stop the assumptions, and continue to encourage growth.
“I thought he was very mature in camp,” Girardi said. “He had a great camp on the field, in the clubhouse, off the field. When I was 21 years old, I was doing some foolish things. I think he’s grown up. I don’t think he could have done much more.”
New York knows what they have in Mateo, and they will continue to analyze how he can help the major league team succeed. At this moment in time, his future doesn’t seem to be in the middle of the infield but he can flourish on the other side of the grass, so this assignment makes all the sense in the world.
“Man, he’s got a lot of talent and raw tools,” left fielder Brett Gardner said. “Everybody talks about his speed, but he hit a missile for an opposite-field homer. He can impact the baseball. I’m sure he probably could move to center, he’d just need reps and his athleticism would take over.”
Mateo is also on the 40-man roster. Looking at the outfield scenario, the only healthy 40-man roster players who saw time in the outfield in 2016 are Matt Holliday (644 innings), Rob Refsnyder (158.2 innings) and utility infielder Ronald Torreyes (four innings). Mason Williams just returned to action after being shut down due to an inflamed left patella and Tyler Austin, who could have been an option as a corner outfielder, is no longer in the picture until June.
Who’s the guy Girardi turns to if Jacoby Ellsbury, Brett Gardner, Aaron Judge or Aaron Hicks comes up limping? Probably Clint Frazier, but Girardi certainly won’t forget the athleticism Mateo has demonstrated and if he leaps the outfield hurdle in a comfortable place, he’ll be on the fast-track to the Bronx.