The Orioles are not exactly brimming with talent. While a few pieces of their current major league squad may play a role in the next relevant O’s team, it is much more likely that the organization will instead lean on their top prospects, many of whom are still one more season away (at least) from making an impact at the highest level. In short: winning is not the Orioles priority in 2019, but you already knew that.
Since the wins don’t really matter, the Orioles should be most concerned about how the actions they take now will affect future teams. That brings us to the curious cases of Mark Trumbo and Chris Davis.
Trumbo bounced back from an abysmal 2017 to hit .261/.313/.452 with 17 home runs in just 90 games of an injury-shortened season last year. The 33-year-old is entering a contract year, and is said to be healthy now as he rehabbed from knee surgery throughout the off-season.
Davis is coming off of one of the worst offensive seasons in baseball history. His .168/.243/.296 batting line is almost impossible to believe, and it does not appear that injury was the cause of those issues. Unlike Trumbo, Davis has three additional seasons under contract with the O’s after 2019. Joy.
Having these two on the roster together has been difficult to manage for a few years now, but it was easier to handle when Trumbo was competing for the home run crown and Davis was a viable major league player. That is no longer the case for either of them. Trey Mancini’s presence adds another level of complexity to the situation.
Mancini had a doozy of a sophomore slump in 2018. Splitting his time between left field, first base and DH, the 26-year-old managed to hit just .242/.299/.416 albeit with 24 home runs over 156 games. While no one reasonably expected Mancini to become a star, it was nonetheless a disappointing follow-up to a promising rookie season.
That said, Mancini has not exactly been put in a position to succeed by the Orioles to this point in his big league career. The 6-foot-4 Notre Dame product is a big, stiff slugger that came through the minors as a corner infielder and has always looked out of place in the outfield. His time roaming the grass should be over.
If Mancini is ever going to reach his modest potential, he will need to play everyday as either the Orioles DH or their first baseman, where his bat (rather than his awkward fielding) can be his defining characteristic. That has not been possible in recent years because those happen to be the two positions that also best fit both Trumbo and Davis. At this point, Mancini should be given preference over the other two.
Mancini’s ceiling is almost certainly lower than what Trumbo or Davis have already achieved in their careers. He’s never going to lead the league in home runs. He probably won’t make any all-star teams. And he may not even be an everyday starter long term. However, playing Mancini in his preferred position now is better for the Orioles going forward.
The only real argument for playing Trumbo everyday is that he can increase his trade value in order to be dealt this summer for an intriguing prospect or two. That logic would seem flawed, though. The fact is that few teams are interested in a one-dimensional player with an expiring contract and a recent history of injuries. Unless Trumbo transforms into a different player in 2019, his value in a trade will remain quite low.
The Davis situation is more complicated. The Orioles have invested in him for years to come. Even if he were to bounce back and post league average numbers, his value in a trade would still be non-existent due to his enormous salary, lengthy contract, and limited skill set. As he enters his mid-30’s, it’s unlikely that Davis gets better. If he is on the roster, he should play when it makes sense, but not at the expense of another player.
Simply put, this iteration of the Orioles should feature Mancini playing everyday with Davis and Trumbo shuffling in and out of either the DH or first base roles when appropriate.
This decision would have the added benefit of allowing D.J. Stewart to play everyday in left field, where his skills could play up when compared to the opposite corner outfield spot. Stewart made an intriguing cameo towards the end of 2018, and the Orioles need to get him regular at-bats this season to find out what the future holds for him. With a trio of outfield prospects (Yusniel Diaz, Austin Hays, Ryan McKenna) knocking on the major league door, 2019 may be Stewart’s only shot at a starting job.
This, of course, leaves right field wide open. The later it gets into the off-season the more it seems the Orioles will not add a cheap veteran outfielder. Instead, they may prefer to let Joey Rickard serve as a placeholder until Austin Hays is deemed healthy and ready for the big time, which could be sooner rather than later. Another option would be cycling in super-utility types like Steve Wilkerson or Rule 5 pick Drew Jackson in an attempt to give the pair of fringe major leaguers a healthy chunk of innings to find out which one would be a better fit as the “new Ryan Flaherty.”
None of these right field scenarios is particularly appealing unless Hays comes to Baltimore looking like the top 100 prospect he once was. However, it won’t take much for the Orioles to improve upon the 0.5 fWAR their right fielders posted as a group in 2018, which was the fifth-worst mark in MLB.
One flaw of the Buck Showalter era was how often the manager deferred to his veteran talent, allowing them to continue playing despite obvious deficiencies. Brandon Hyde and Mike Elias won’t enter with those sort of built-in loyalties. It may make for some awkward moments, but should result in stronger Orioles teams going forward.