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A cockamamie solution for a non-problem problem
Shortstop. The field general. The de facto captain. ‘The Guy.’ But what happens when you have two ‘The Guy’s? Two guys who possess top-tier MLB shortstop potential, who could not only man this prestigious position, but could flourish there as well?
This isn't an isolated issue, either. From top to bottom, our franchise is in exceptional shape. And I can’t imagine one person in Birdland who’s upset with our future outlook. Because even with our current roster a fringe playoff team, the farm is ready to provide high-quality reinforcements at a moment’s notice. Reinforcements who, of course, will take playing time away from our current crop of talented players—even some of who are bonafide fan favorites.
This is the unfortunate reality of an otherwise extremely fortuitous situation. We simply have too many good players for too few positions. But while no rival fan bases will shed any tears over our predicament (nor should they), we’ll have to make some hard decisions, with shortstop right at the top of the list. And it certainly won’t be an easy undertaking, trying to choose between the homegrown Golden Boy and the potential diamond who's finally starting to emerge from the rough.
It's a quandary which is only getting harder to solve, as it plays out right before our eyes seemingly every game. Because Mateo’ll start one day, and he’ll look like the indisputable answer moving forward. Then Henderson will get the start the next night, and he’ll emerge as the only logical choice. Or on some occasions, like the second game in Washington, their jockeying will happen not game-to-game but inning-to-inning. That night, Mateo was putting on a clinic defensively, entrenching himself firmly in the pole position. Then Henderson smacked a clutch, go-ahead little league HR, and suddenly he’s atop the leaderboard again. Then, literally one pitch later, Mateo smoked a ball into the left field seats to reclaim the top spot. And so when the end of the game finally rolled around, we were no closer to an answer then when it started.
And this purgatory, this weird love triangle, is a place I'd honestly never expected to exist. Because as someone who’s been fixated on the O's finding their next great SS for years now, someone who admittedly put too much faith into the likes of Tim Beckham and Richie Martin, grasping at things that, in retrospect, clearly weren't there, Gunnar's been a bit of an obsession of mine for a while now. And I've spent countless hours—from MiLB First Pitch to articles to podcasts to prospect lists—tracking his every move within the system. Hoping beyond hope that he'd be the next ‘The Guy.’
But I did try as much as possible not to get ahead of myself, to temper my outlandish expectations of the poor kid. Because if Adley was the sure thing, Gunnar was always more of a lotto ticket—and I had to remind myself constantly that the odds weren’t necessarily in our favor. But then, as he matured in his development, it looked as if our numbers were actually going to hit. That we’d stumbled into something truly special, that we’d double dipped in the '19 draft. And at that point I let my imagination run wild, my blissful, far-off fantasies turning into concrete forecasting almost overnight. Dreaming about him not only as the O's shortstop for the back half of the 2020s, but being a perennial All-Star and MVP candidate.
And even a month ago, there appeared to be no obstacles in his path. That his only real competition was going to come from those behind him in the farm system—certainly not the current big league roster. In fact, Mateo was such an afterthought in my mind, I didn’t even mention him in my future roster paragraph on my draft column.
“Roster implication: I still like the HS player development timeframe with this pick, but not nearly as much as I do with an outfielder. Looking at Henderson, Westburg, Prieto, etc…it may seem like we’re lousy with shortstops…Now, maybe they’re planning to sign a FA SS to a 3- or 4-year contract this offseason. That would certainly ease most concerns I have in this area, as we could give Jackson time to fill out and see where he ends up sticking.”
But much like Janey Briggs, Mateo had been there hiding in plain sight all along. And after the All-Star break, he underwent the baseball-equivalent of unscrunchying his ponytail and shedding his paint-splotched overalls—revealing a superb and well-rounded skill set we’d glimpsed but had never actually seen on a daily basis. And so after callously brushing him aside for months, I was forced to reevaluate him. Or, maybe more accurately, to appropriately evaluate him for the first time. And boy did I like what I saw. Liked it so much that I wouldn't be surprised if this all ends with me sprinting through the airport, trying to catch him before he boards a plane for his snooty Parisian art school. Hoping my over-the-top display will illustrate how I'm a changed man, who’ll never take him for granted again.
And so I find myself at this crossroads. Because while I've been pining for Gunnar for years, it’d be borderline negligent to ignore what Mateo brings to the table. But only one of these guys can be our everyday shortstop. So even though it’s going to be difficult, we have to choose.
Or do we?
Allow me to introduce you to Gunge Matenderson (/ gun-HEY MAH-tender-son /). Gunge is an incredible athlete and a phenomenal baseball player. He has world-class speed and the perfect compact right-handed stroke to allow him to take advantage of it. But he also comes equipped with a smooth yet powerful left-handed uppercut that’ll have him peppering Eutaw street for years to come. Oh, and he's a gold-glove-caliber defender with an absolute cannon for an arm. Frankly, Gunge can do anything and everything. Gunge is the future.
Now I know what you're thinking: The Elias regime isn't interested in playing god, so they aren't going to get themselves mixed up with the dark art of DNA fusing. And that even if they were willing to cross such perilous moral thresholds, they don’t have the hyper-advanced tech to pull it off in the first place.
Well, prepare to feel stupid: Because I happen to know for a fact that they not only have the flimsy, self-serving ethics to engage in such torrid affairs, but the technological capability, as well. Yes, here's indisputable proof they’re already experimenting with some sort of cloning/replicant initiative.
And digging into the gameday program, there’s clearly something blatantly perverse happening here:
Now obviously this is all just idiotic nonsense (which, if you’re reading a clown like me, I can only assume you crave in large amounts). Because the O’s aren’t creating hybrids of their players, nor are they in the clone/replicant game. What they’re doing, through high draft picks and smart Rule 5 signings, is bolstering their farm system and big-league roster to an absurd degree. Again, it's a great problem to have, even if it does lead to the occasional gene-fusion daydream—a distraction substantially more enjoyable than actually sitting down and processing all of these childish emotions coursing through my body.
Because, essentially, that’s what I’m getting at here. At the core of this ridiculous scenario are the sentimental bonds I’ve formed with these athletes. Because of course, Gunnar could play 3B and Mateo SS. Or Henderson SS and Mateo 2B. But that's the thing, I want them both to be the Orioles everyday shortstop. I want them both to man the premier position.
And even if I could resign myself to watching one play somewhere else, what about Mayo and Westburg and Prieto and Ortiz and Norby? And how do we fit in our most recent #1 overall pick? He's only been in the system for two months, and I'm already salivating over his highlights like the bell-triggered German shepherd that I am. I mean, I've grown so unhealthily attached to all these guys that I want them all to succeed. At the same time. On the same team. In the same positions.
But I'm losing the plot, as the matter at hand is the Gunnar/Mateo conundrum. And as it stands currently, I think I’d like to see Mateo get the starting nod at short next year. He deserves the opportunity, at least at first, to show he’s finally 'put it all together.’ To demonstrate that, with a full offseason of prep, he can live up to both his potential and the fan base’s lofty expectations. And, cynically, because I’m prone to hedging my bets. Mateo is the unknown commodity vs Gunnar, who is (knock on every piece of wood in Maryland) a burgeoning superstar. And, ultimately, providing Mateo the opportunity to start the season at short could pay huge dividends while risking almost nothing. Because should Mateo struggle, should he unfortunately regress to what some people believe to be his true ceiling, Henderson can simply slide over and claim his rightful spot. In the end, the experiment will have cost us little, if anything at all.
Plus, this strategy unlocks the tantalizing possibility mentioned earlier of both of these guys on the same side of the infield. And while I want Gunnar to rake in the acclaim and accolades that accompany SS, the thought of Mateo playing lights out short with Henderson flanking him at thirdis like some sort of beautiful hallucination come true. And, again, should Mateo’s bat not keep pace with his glove, he could switch to 2B, where there’s less pressure to produce offensively. Or even become a platoon player. While far from ideal, at least he’d still be on the roster. And as a bonus, either of those scenarios would make space for Mayo (or Westburg or Norby or Ortiz or Hendrickson), too.
Though, once more, the logistics of the situation aren't the paramount concern at the moment. What’s important is that we appreciate our good fortune and the players that led us here. And since both these guys appear to have the tangible skill set to be premier shortstops, it's never going to be a simple decision. I mean, I said Mateo a paragraph ago, and I'm already second-guessing it. Let's make it Gunnar—he’s younger with more upside. No, I was right the first time, Mateo, his glove is the difference maker. No, Gunnar. No, Mateo. Ah fuck it, let's just figure out a way to make Gunge happen.
If you liked this article, you may enjoy my personal Substack: The Bird City Courant
Actually, when I think of Little League HR, I think of a ball that doesn’t leave the infield and three throwing errors. This ball at least got to the wall before that LF’s feeble attempt at a throw, so let’s call it a JV HR
See also: Masiah Likedrews (/ mai-ZAY-uh LIKE-drews /)
Which some in the know claim may be a better fit for him anyway