It's not hard to see why Trey Mancini is such a fan favorite. He persevered as an overlooked prospect to earn a full-time role, plays out of position because first base is blocked by Chris Davis, has taken on a leadership role on a young team and has publicly stated he wants to remain in Baltimore.
Of course, it helps that Mancini is one of the Orioles' few homegrown talents who's any good right now. And he just put together easily the best year of his three full major league seasons.
After posting a surprising 116 wRC+ as a rookie in 2017, Mancini fell back to earth in 2018 (91 wRC+) as he played through a knee injury on a 115-loss squad. The Orioles were moderately better in 2019 (only 108 losses), but Mancini was on top of his game.
Mancini posted career highs across the board -- in batting average (.291), on-base percentage (.364), slugging percentage (.535), wOBA (.373), wRC+ (132), home runs (35), walk percentage (9.3%), strikeout percentage (21.1%) and FanGraphs' wins above replacement (3.6). He would have been a suitable All-Star Game representative if left-hander John Means hadn't (justifiably) earned the spot instead.
Mancini's 132 wRC+ put him in the top 30 among all qualified major leaguers. His batted-ball numbers also reveal a legitimate middle-of-the-order bat, as he's hitting the ball in the air more often than in past years and limiting ground balls.
According to Statcast data, Mancini's average launch angle -- the vertical angle at which the ball leaves a player's bat after being struck -- was 7.8 degrees, the highest of his career. His average exit velocity (90.3 mph) and hard-hit percentage (42.7%) increased slightly as well, but lofting the ball over infielders paid dividends for Mancini. He posted a career-high fly ball percentage (31.9%) while hitting the ball on the ground a career low 45.9% of the time. More line drives and fly balls led to more doubles and home runs and more damage done to opposing pitchers.
Mancini did all of that by better utilizing the middle and opposite fields. With that up-the-middle approach, he collected 24 extra-base hits to center field or right field. Only four right-handed hitters -- Nicholas Castellanos, Anthony Rendon, Mookie Betts and DJ LeMahieu -- had more in 2019.
Fans had to wait an additional year to see Mancini show that his rookie season wasn't a fluke, but better late than never. Now, the question shifts to wondering not only if he can do it again, but if he has another gear. Can some of those doubles in the gap turn into home runs instead? In his rookie season, Mancini's average hit distance was 157 feet before dipping to 147 feet in 2018. It jumped to 172 feet in 2019 (and surely the "juiced" ball played a part in that).
Near the end of the season, in discussing with reporters what Mancini needs to do to improve his offensive production yet again, manager Brandon Hyde mentioned plate discipline and pitch recognition as driving his ability to keep hitting the ball hard and in the air.
"Over the course of the season, what you've seen with Trey is he's getting some experience and you're starting to see more plate discipline," Hyde said. "He's not chasing the sinker down and in or letting the ball run in on his hands. Doing a better job laying off the slider down and away. He's put really good swings on balls lately because he's gotten in hitters' counts. When you grow as a hitter, you'll see him hit the ball in the air a lot more with authority."
Indeed, while opposing pitchers threw Mancini fewer pitches in the strike zone this past season (45.7%), he was more selective in the zone and made better contact on pitches both in (79.7%) and out (61.3%) of the zone. In the process, he performed better against fastballs along with breaking and off-speed stuff -- though he punished fastballs the most with a .431 wOBA and .402 expected wOBA.
Besides his improved on-field results, Mancini's growing leadership has been a consistent theme. In fact, Mancini said players asked him toward the end of the 2018 season about how to handle their 401k plans, and in February, Mancini kept up Adam Jones' tradition of ordering Popeyes for the entire club after its first spring training game.
It's been a topic Mancini and Hyde have been asked about repeatedly. Mancini told reporters late in the 2019 season he can "take on more of a vocal role," with Hyde noting that "as he gets more comfortable being in the big leagues and putting up years like he's just put up, that will be more natural for him, to pull guys aside and teach along the way as well."
As Orioles prospects grow and develop and debut in Baltimore, this new regime undoubtedly wants the right type of leaders and nurturing forces around them. That's not the sole reason to keep a player around, or maybe even one of the top few reasons, but it sure could be a piece of the puzzle. It remains to be seen whether Mancini is more of a good player or great player, but what he brings to the table both on the field and in the clubhouse may be something the Orioles truly value and other teams may not be able to get a full picture of.
Heading into his first arbitration year, Mancini is projected by MLB Trade Rumors to earn $5.7 million in 2020. Like everyone else wearing an Orioles uniform during this rebuild, he'll be considered a trade chip in some shape or form. But if the Orioles continue to hold on to him and determine they can't get a strong enough return based on what they think he's worth, would they consider an extension?
There aren't many recent extensions that provide a good example of what a deal would look like for a good hitter and bad corner outfielder who should be playing first base. In April, the Toronto Blue Jays signed outfielder Randal Grichuk to what was essentially a five-year, $52 million extension that bought out his final two arbitration years.
In February, outfielder Max Kepler signed a five-year, $35 million extension with the Minnesota Twins that bought out his arbitration years. And in 2017, outfielder Stephen Piscotty inked a six-year, $33.5 million contract with the St. Louis Cardinals. These are far from perfect comps, but something in the five- or six-year range for about $10 million per season may be the starting point for Mancini.
That's something the Orioles could easily afford, but there are pressing questions. How much longer is Chris Davis going to be on the roster? When will prospect Ryan Mountcastle make his debut, and will he be the primary first baseman? Do the Orioles really need to be sinking money into first base/designated hitter types so early in a rebuild?
There are plenty of factors at play. The Orioles aren't going to just give Mancini away, but they're also not just going to extend him simply because he wants to stick around. Regardless, there are worse things than keeping around quality characters and solid ballplayers like Mancini. That it's such a key question tells you just how much more work needs to be done.