Orioles fans needed to search hard for something to be excited about during spring training. But the outfield situation presented a glimmer of hope. Top prospect Yusniel Diaz raked. Austin Hays proved his health. Anthony Santander showed the promise that made the Orioles want to stash him as a Rule 5 pick. DJ Stewart was coming off a September call up where he hit well.
Despite the talent and spring performance of this group of young outfielders, the new regime in Baltimore reminded us that they are taking the long view despite declaring that spring training would be an open competition. Whether it be to give these players more time to develop or service time manipulation, all four were cut from major league camp and sent to the minors. The future will need to wait.
Putting myself in Mike Elias’ shoes, I can understand these decisions. Success for the 2019 Orioles is seeing future contributors get better, and strong arguments can be made that these young outfielders, especially Diaz and Hays, need more time in the minors. From the perspective of a fan who will be looking for reasons to turn on MASN every night, I’d like to see top young talent in the majors on Opening Day. There are reasons why Mike Elias is making these decisions and not me.
So who will be patrolling the outfield for the Orioles next week in New York? It appears likely that Trey Mancini, Cedric Mullins, and Joey Rickard will get the bulk of the playing time. Drew Jackson can back up all outfield positions and Dwight Smith Jr. and Eric Young Jr. appear to be battling for the last spot.
Mancini will again be penciled into left field, even though he’s a first baseman. Defensively, he won’t help the club in the outfield. His UZR worsened from -5.1 to -8.3 last season. But he’s on the roster because of his offense and fans are hoping he looks more like the 2017 version of Mancini (.293/.338/.488) rather than the 2018 (.242/.299/.416). He battled an ankle injury last season, so this is a big campaign for him. With a new front office and manager, he needs to regain his form in order to maintain his standing within the organization. His offensive performance is something worth watching closely this season.
Mullins was in an interesting position entering spring training. The previous regime was very fond of him despite some scouts projecting him as a fourth outfielder. He didn’t do himself any favors in spring training, slashing .182/.265/.455. Despite that, it appears as though he will resume his spot in centerfield that he obtained last summer. The 24 year old who has only 170 major league at bats under his belt is still learning and will likely experience peaks and valleys like last season. The Orioles would be thrilled if Mullins can establish himself as an on-base and stolen base threat at the top of the lineup. Hopefully he can increase his .312 OBP in Baltimore to the .330 mark he has shown in the minors.
Rickard appears to have made a favorable impression on the new decision makers and will likely see significant playing time in right field. Brandon Hyde has praised Rickard’s defensive ability and flexibility, his speed, and his offensive game plan. Fresh eyes may have benefited Rickard and he’s excelled in the Grapefruit League (.385/.419/.564). While Rickard is an above average defender and brings an element of speed, we have had three years of seeing what he brings to the table offensively. His career slash line of .252/.298/.376 doesn’t inspire confidence. But he is better than Colby Rasmus, so that’s something.
After those three, it is unclear what Brandon Hyde and Mike Elias will do. It is very likely the Rule 5 pick Drew Jackson will make the roster. He has the capability of backing up infield and outfield positions and will serve the role of super utility player. Earlier this month I outlined the diverse skills he brings. Having never played above AA ball, how he responds to this opportunity will be one of 2019’s biggest storylines.
Depending on how Hyde uses Jackson will determine how the rest of the outfield is constructed. Dwight Smith Jr. and Eric Young Jr. are competing for the final spot and both probably won’t be carried on Opening Day. Each brings something different. Young is 33 years old whose impressive leadership qualities could help fill the void left by Adam Jones’ departure. He’s been a reserve outfielder throughout his career, slashing .245/.312/.332 and playing average defense over ten seasons. Smith, a 26 year old former first round pick, is a fringe prospect acquired recently. In 104 plate appearances over parts of two seasons in Toronto, he’s accumulated a .833 OPS but has cost his team six runs defensively in that limited time. The 2019 Orioles are in a position to choose promise over veteran leadership, so Smith will probably head north with the team. Young could find his way onto the roster if Mark Trumbo starts the year on the disabled list.
The outfield could look quite different come summertime, and that is something for Orioles fans to look forward to. Yusniel Diaz, Austin Hays, and Anthony Santander will hopefully continue their hot spring trainings in the minor leagues and DJ Stewart should pick things up. Ideally, a spot in the outfield is opened up with Trey Mancini moving out of left. Trading Trumbo will surely be a priority if he is productive in anyway, opening up first base and DH for Mancini and Chris Davis. If one of the previously mentioned young outfielders stays hot, Joey Rickard could also lose playing time.
While the outfield on Opening Day may not inspire a ton of confidence, there is reason to be excited. Baltimore’s outfield has more talent at high levels of the minor leagues than any other area of the organization, including their number one prospect. Fans can eagerly follow Norfolk and Bowie early in the season to see if any of these outfielders are forcing the Warehouse’s hand. An outfield of Diaz, Mullins, and Hays with Stewart and Santander getting occasional playing time is something I’m very excited to see. Patience will truly be a virtue for O’s fans in 2019.