The Detroit Tigers have “shown interest” in Oakland Athletics infielder Jorge Mateo, according to a report from Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic. Mateo, a one-time top-100 prospect, hit .289/.330/.504 with 19 home runs and 24 stolen bases for Triple-A Las Vegas last year, but was not called up in September. He struggled in winter ball, hitting just .197/.289/.235 with four extra-base hits in 37 games.
Mateo, 24, is out of options, and part of a crowded competition for the second base job in Oakland. Former top prospect Franklin Barreto — who is also out of options, and a potential late-March cut — and Rule 5 selection Vimael Machin are also in the mix, and early indications are that Mateo is third in the pecking order. Rosenthal noted that Machin “possesses the kind of plate discipline the A’s want from Mateo,” and Barreto already has over 80 games of MLB experience, while Mateo has yet to make his major league debut. Former Astro Tony Kemp is also competing for an infield job in A’s camp.
The A’s originally acquired Mateo from the New York Yankees in 2017 as part of the Sonny Gray trade. The deal has not worked out particularly well for either side, as both Mateo and righthander James Kaprielian have struggled at times in Oakland’s system; prior to last season’s breakout, Mateo fell off the prospect radar with a poor 2018 season at Triple-A Nashville in which he hit just .230/.280/.353. Even last year’s numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, as Las Vegas is one of the most hitter-friendly environments in all of professional baseball. Mateo’s .834 OPS was not even league average production, according to wRC+, and his walk rate actually declined from 2018 (5.7 percent) to 2019 (5.1 percent).
So far this spring, Mateo is 6-for-22 (.273 average) with five walks and five strikeouts. He does not have any extra-base hits, but has stolen three bases without being caught. Both Barreto and Machin have put up superior numbers to Mateo so far in camp, though Machin has not faced the same level of competition (per Baseball Reference’s opponent quality metric).
For the Tigers, Mateo could be a potential upgrade over utility options like Harold Castro in 2020. Neither Castro nor Mateo possess much plate discipline, but Mateo has more power and is a much better runner — both FanGraphs and MLB Pipeline recently slapped elite (80) grades on his running ability. He still possesses starter upside, but has had trouble putting everything together on a consistent basis.
When Mateo is at his best, he has wow tools, starting with his top-of-the-scale speed. That makes him very dangerous on the basepaths, though he hasn’t been looking to steal as much with the A’s as he did earlier in his career. He is capable of making hard contact with surprising pop at the plate, though he’s struggled with plate discipline for much of his career. Most of that can be attributed to his game clock. When he goes too fast, his strikeouts spike. When he slows down too much and gets low energy, he’s too passive.
If the Tigers are able to sort Mateo out, they could find themselves with a future everyday starter at second base on a steep discount. Since he is out of options, Mateo could be waiver wire fodder at the end of the spring, and the Tigers have the first right of refusal. They could also work out a trade with the A’s if they sense others are closing in, though Rosenthal noted that their interest in Mateo is “tepid.” Still, it likely would not take much to pry Mateo away from the A’s, especially if they already view him as a future cut to make room for others on their Opening Day roster.