The Orioles were a flawed team in 2019. There’s no way around it and there’s no doubt about it. Baltimore was more than just a piece or two a way from competing. The club needed an upgrade at every level.
The outfield was no exception. The Orioles’ Opening Day center fielder ended up struggling at Double-A (see Mullins, Cedric), and their best outfielder was a guy that probably shouldn’t be playing in the outfield at all (see Mancini, Trey).
Stevie Wilkerson put together a memorable season, but his finest moments came on the mound and not the outfield lawn. And top-five prospect Ryan Mountcastle, now a left fielder, never made his way to Baltimore.
If this sounds disappointing, it was. But the reality is that a lack of solidified talent in the outfield provided every outfielder in the organization an opportunity. Dwight Smith Jr. and DJ Stewart did their best to take advantage of that opportunity.
Smith Jr. made his way to Baltimore after the Blue Jays gave up on him. The Jays felt Smith, at 26 years old, was only worth some international bonus cash. There were times this year he appeared to be worth more, but we’ll get to that.
Smith had played all three outfield positions in the minors, and Mike Elias liked the versatility. Toronto drafted Smith 53rd overall in the 2011 draft, and a pick that high always carries a little extra intrigue.
Smith emerged from an outfield pool that included fellow junior Eric Young, and top prospect Yusniel Diaz. He made his O’s debut on Opening Day and hit right away.
Smith showed an ability to jump on pitcher’s fastballs, and flashed some unanticipated pop. At the end of April, he was hitting .276/.325/.486 with five home runs. He blasted five more homers in the month of May, but things really fell off after that.
Smith hit only one home run in each of the final months of the season. His average plummeted as well, bottoming out at .161 in 56 July at bats.
Smith was eventually sidelined with a strained calf, but made his way back before the season ended. He also missed time for a concussion in June.
Once healthy, Smith did bounce back a bit. He hit .261/.320/.391 over his final 17 games. Just enough to make you wonder if there’s more to give next season.
While Smith began to struggle, Stewart was turning heads at Triple-A. Stewart hit .291 and got on base at nearly a 40% clip. His walk rate sat high enough (especially within the Orioles organization), and at 25 years old he had enough experience under his belt.
Unfortunately, Stewart injured his right ankle just over a week after he earned a promotion to Baltimore. Stewart collided with Hanser Alberto attempting to catch a foul ball and remained out until August.
Stewart returned and hit just .238 over 44 games. The injury seemed to linger, and this offseason Stewart elected to take care of it.
Stewart underwent surgery on the ankle and is not expected to resume baseball activities until the spring. He likely won’t be able to compete for a spot on the Opening Day roster, and may not be ready by then anyway.
Stewart’s injury is obviously disappointing for him, but it also lowers the number of outfielders competing for a job next season. It may increase Smith’s odds, but it certainly doesn’t make him a lock.
The toughest breaks for Smith and Stewart in 2019, aside from injuries, were the play of Anthony Santander and Austin Hays late in the year. Both asserted themselves as frontrunners for starting jobs in 2020, and they could easily be the two that join Mancini in the starting lineup next year.
Hays is the only true center fielder out of the group, and there’s an argument to be made that Santander was the O’s best player for a brief period last season.
Of course, any trade that included Mancini would drastically shake up the outfield situation, but the organization will cross that road if it gets there.
Smith’s ability to handle center field for a game or two could help him make a case for a fourth outfielder spot, but the leash should be short. Diaz will be another year older, and will require a look at some point. The club hasn’t given up on Mullins yet, and Wilkerson will have something to say about a utility spot.
Stewart, when healthy, will provide an interesting situation for the Orioles. He’ll likely take on a rehab assignment, but there’s little left for him to prove in the minors. He’s never going to be an elite defender, but the club needs to see what that bat can do at the Big League level.
Stewart, a former first-round pick, could easily return to the 25-man roster once he’s healthy. Who knows, maybe it will be Smith’s spot that he takes.