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Orioles still trying to figure out center field

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Baltimore has used a handful of players in center field so far in 2019 and nobody has seized the job yet.

Baltimore Orioles v Chicago White Sox - Game Two Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

In terms of hitting ability with Trey Mancini and Dwight Smith Jr., the outfield corners seem to be in capable hands for now. Orioles left fielders are hitting .283/.342/.469 this season, while right fielders are hitting .283/.355/.500.

But center field is a different story.

Through the first 36 games of the season, the Orioles have used a total of four players in center. They are, in terms of game appearances, Cedric Mullins (20), Joey Rickard (13), Stevie Wilkerson (5) and Drew Jackson (1).

Those four players have combined to hit .171/.243/.276 in 123 at-bats, with two home runs and eight RBI.

Fangraphs has all four O’s center fielders with UZRs hovering around average: Jackson -0.3, Mullins -0.5, Rickard 0.8 and Wilkerson 0.1.

If you blinked, then you missed Jackson’s oh-so-brief time on the club at the beginning of the year. He initially made the team as a Rule 5 pick after hitting .316/.355/.386 with one home run and nine RBI in spring training.

But he was only in the majors for eight days — during which time he had just four plate appearances — before he was designated for assignment and ended up back in the minors with his original team, the Dodgers. It makes you wonder why Elias and company decided to carry Jackson at all.

He’s currently hitting .205/.314/.318 with one home run, seven RBI and four steals in 15 games with the Triple-A Oklahoma City Dodgers of the Pacific Coast League.

Joey Rickard is a another Orioles Rule 5 guy, circa 2016, who is going into his fourth year with the Birds. So far in 2019, he is carrying a .198/.287/.354 batting line in 108 plate appearances. For his major league career, covering parts of the past four seasons, his slash line is .245/.297/.374.

The 2019 Joey Rickard center field experiment seems to be over, for now at least. He got a string of starts there after Mullins was optioned on April 22, but seems destined for more corner outfield responsibilities. In his brief starting stint in center, Rickard had some notable misplayed balls, but he still has the best UZR there among the aforementioned players.

The last time Rickard started in center was on Wednesday, May 1. Wilkerson has started the past five games in a row there. The converted infielder — or super-utility player, whichever you prefer — had never played a professional inning in center until appearing in two games there (16 innings) with the Tides this season before being called up to the O’s.

So far he has looked okay in a very limited sample size, for an infielder at least. He looks fluid tracking balls most of the time and there was one recent play that sticks out in particular. There was a high fly ball to center with a runner on base and Wilkerson took his time to circle it and get his momentum going forward when he caught it, so that he was in position to make a strong throw.

With Wilkerson getting the majority of the playing time in center right now, it will be interesting to see what the position holds in the next month or two. Will Wilkerson play well enough to keep it? Will more of a platoon situation emerge? Or will a player be called up from the minors to take over?

Austin Hays immediately comes to mind as someone capable of filling in sometime later this summer. He did have arguably the best spring training of any O’s outfielder, hitting .351/.385/.892 with five home runs and 13 RBI. But he was not included on the 25-man opening day roster, with the reasoning at the time being that he needed more experience in terms of minor league at-bats.

On March 25, Hays sprained his thumb while sliding head first on the basepaths. He started playing in rehab games on May 3, so it will be interesting to see when he’s healthy and has his timing back at the plate. Hays never got a chance for those minor league at-bats before getting injured, so that’s probably still on the docket for him before a recall to the O’s.

And let’s not forget about Cedric Mullins. Speaking of which, Alex Church wrote a great article about him and Chance Sisco just the other day. Although Mullins .094/.181/.156 with the O’s, he’s been doing well recently with Norfolk. He’s hitting .286/.365/.482 with two home runs and four steals in 13 games.

All stats courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Reference.