PHOENIX—The scouting reports on Ryan Mountcastle dating back to his high school career have consistently said that the Orioles' prospect lacked the arm strength to play shortstop at the professional level. The long-expected shift to third base coincided with the native Floridan's promotion to Double-A Bowie two-thirds of the way through the 2017 season, his third year since being drafted in the first round by the Orioles in 2015.
In addition to having to deal with better pitching at the new level, he also had to learn a position in which he had limited experience in both his pro and amateur careers. Mountcastle will continue his crash course at the hot corner with an assignment to the Salt River Rafters of the Arizona Fall League, Major League Baseball's premier off-season development environment.
The six-team league's season begins Tuesday. But the 39 games at Bowie has already given him an idea of what to expect from his new position.
"Being ready for anything hit at you," Mountcastle said, "(because) some of these big guys can really smoke them at you and you've got to be ready for it right off the bat." He added that he's aware of the importance of getting that important first step on groundballs and making a good throw to first base.
But will his below-average arm strength allow Mountcastle to handle those long throws across the infield, or will a move to left field be in his future? Rafters hitting coach Ryan Minor, who manages the Orioles' low Class A Delmarva affiliate and played third base in the majors himself, believes Mountcastle will be fine.
"For him it's just positioning," Minor said, "being able to have a little quicker release to compensate for what people say is his lack of arm strength. But he's got enough to play over there. His footwork and everything have to be pretty good for him to able to make the throws he needs to make . . . He's adequate enough with what he has right now."
Minor added that Mountcastle, who can hit for both power and average with a listed 6-foot-3, 195-pound body, profiles well at third base.
Mountcastle has not elicited many doubts about his ability at the plate during his career. He had his best professional output during 88 games at high Class A Frederick, posting a .314/.343/.542 slash line with 15 home runs. He was hitting .167 after the jump to Double-A before finishing the 2017 season strong, hitting safely in 15 of his final 19 games, with two homers and eight doubles in that stretch.
"He's got this natural ability to put the barrel on the ball," Minor said. "When you look at him, he's strong for his age, his hand/eye coordination is really, really good, and his pitch recognition is really good. He's advanced at that part of the game."
Mountcastle noticed the improvement in pitching between the high Class A and Double-A levels, commenting on the adjustments that he had to make against more advanced hurlers. He expects to see that same caliber of pitching during his six-week stint in Arizona.
"They've got command of all of their pitches," said Mountcastle about the pitchers he saw in the Eastern League, "and can exploit weaknesses that they see. Stuff-wise I would say it's about the same and they're not throwing that much harder than at other levels, but they know how to command the pitch."
Still only 20, Mountcastle will be one of the younger players in the Arizona Fall League this year. He's not at all intimated by that fact, noting that he's used to playing up a level against older guys. Still, that didn't stop him from flashing a smile when it was mentioned to him that big league third basemen David Wright also played in the AFL at the age of 20.
The move to third base could be crucial for the Orioles. Manny Machado hits free agency after the 2018 season, and Mountcastle is the most likely in-house candidate to replace him.
Minor was quick to point out Mountcastle's excellent makeup, steady demeanor and solid work ethic. It's something that the Orioles have reinforced in their minor league players.
"Just being a professional and going about your business in a good way," Mountcastle said. "Being a good role model on and off the field, and keeping a level head, especially on the field."
• The Arizona Fall League will continue in its role as a testing ground for potential rule changes. New this year will be the international tiebreaker rule used in extra innings in 2017 in the World Baseball Classic and later in the Arizona, Dominican Summer and Gulf Coast Leagues.
In the event of a tie after nine innings, the player for each team who made the final out in the ninth inning will be placed on second base to start each half of the 10th. The same process will happen in the 11th inning, after which the game will end in a tie as has been the standard policy in previous AFL seasons.
• This year's AFL managerial lineup includes: Glendale Desert Dogs–Shawn Williams (Phillies); Mesa Solar Sox–Omar Lopez (Astros); Peoria Javelinas–Luis Salazar (Braves); Salt River Rafters–J.R. House (Diamondbacks); Scottsdale Scorpions–Jay Bell (Yankees); Surprise Saguaros–Spike Owen (Rangers).
Williams, 34, is the son of former big league manager Jimy Williams and finished his fourth season managing in the Phillies system this year. House, a former catcher (and quarterback), ranked as the Pirates' No. 1 prospect after the 2000 season and has managed four seasons in the minors. Bell and Owen both were big league shortstops who played more than 1,300 games at the position, while Salazar had more than 1,000 hits in a 13-year big league career, primarily as a third baseman. Lopez, 40, just completed his ninth season as a manager in the Astros system.