Remember the olden days, before the Yankees traded Jorge Mateo in a package of prospects for 2017 trade deadline upgrade Sonny Gray? It was always unclear whether Mateo would be able to shrug off his bugaboos and his consistently at the MLB level, but one thing that was never in doubt was his unrivaled athleticism.
The Yankees hadn't had a prospect like Mateo in seemingly decades. They'd just graduated Aaron Judge to the big leagues the summer prior, and while he was very obviously a physical freak -- which he proved 52 times in 2017 and countless times since -- he was a power threat with a perfect swing who could hold his own on the basepaths. He didn't gallop like Mateo, who was a whirlwind the second he earned first base.
Between Judge and Derek Jeter, the Yankees' position player development was mostly barren. Their top offensive prospects typically became busts; Drew Henson became Eric Duncan became Marcos Vechionacci. This is not even to mention the other top draft picks who were more like "Never Was-es"; CJ Henry and Cito Culver still get together every five years to laugh about how they were never, ever going to replace Jeter.
But suddenly, there was Mateo. By 2015, he was considered the team's top prospect by Baseball America, ranking ahead of Aaron Judge and Gary Sánchez. Would his bat develop power as he filled out, or was he just a sinewy singles hitter who couldn't be stopped between first and second? Either way, he swiped 82 bases across two levels in his first year of full-season ball in 2015.
He quadrupled his home run total the next year (2 to 8!), but sure enough, with the hype hyperfocused on him, his warts began to show. A .685 OPS won't cut it. A decrease in stolen bases year-over-year by 46 bags won't cut it. 108 strikeouts in '16, followed by 144 (!) in 2017, didn't portend the same success as his mystical 2015. But still ... that talent. That athleticism. Mateo was hard to quit, as he bounced from the A's to the Padres to the Orioles.
And now, in Baltimore, all of a sudden, he's making the team question their future in the middle infield. With baseball's top prospect Gunnar Henderson already here and No. 1 pick Jackson Holliday waiting in the wings, it's long been presumed that Mateo is nothing but an electric piece of filler. Now? Through 2.5 weeks, he has the second-most fantasy points in baseball behind Ronald Acuña Jr. The power is here. The speed never left. And Mateo looks like a thorn in the Yankees' side, as well as everyone else's.
Orioles (and former Yankees) SS Jorge Mateo is breaking out
If Mateo plans on never striking out again, striking the ball at ridiculous velocities, and stealing league-leading amounts of bases (hat tip to the new bags!), then he just might be an effective player in this league moving forward. One might say.
Oh, and the defense! Don't forget the defense.
Mateo breaking out in San Diego or Oakland, as a direct consequence of the Gray trade, would be more satisfying for Yankees fans, who would prefer his coronation have happened outside the AL East.
That said, the tooled-up speedster throwing Baltimore's long-term plans into chaos because he's just that good is an overall fun baseball story (his recent hip injury, which forced him to leave Wednesday's game, has only left him day-to-day). Plus, don't forget: Baltimore claimed him off waivers. He could've been a Red Sox. They need shortstop help. The Rays could've resurrected him. They tend to do that from time to time.
But the O's got him. They've long needed a few breaks to get out of the AL East basement, and they may have stumbled into a pretty big one here.
Neither the A's nor the Yankees won the Sonny Gray trade, but though it took longer than expected, Mateo certainly did.