It finally seems — with a little more than a month left in the season — like the Orioles are going to be shifting some players around and redistributing playing time.
It’s about time.
The first step in that realignment involves sitting Chris Davis on the bench more often. In the last 10 games, Davis has started at first base only three times. Trey Mancini, on the other hand, has started six of the past 10 games at first, two at designated hitter and two in the outfield (once in right and once in left). With Trey taking his rightful place at first base and DH more frequently, that opens up an outfield spot for one or more of the youngsters.
Anthony Santander, who has already been getting ample playing time, has been solid for the O’s this season in 66 games played. At the start of play yesterday, he was hitting .277/.315/.469. Those numbers looked even better a couple of weeks ago, but he’s hit .196 with a .549 OPS in his last 12 games. The switch-hitter has also shown consistency from both sides of the plate, putting up a .281 batting average as a left-handed batter and a .270 average as a right-handed batter.
One glaring weakness in Santander’s game is his on-base percentage. His career minor league OBP, across eight seasons, is .335. He had a .311 OBP in Norfolk this year before being called up the majors. For too long, Orioles teams have been full of free-swinging batters unable or unwilling to make the pitcher work. And building an offense with those kinds of players yet again is a risky maneuver. Which brings us to a player with a strong history of reaching base via the free pass.
DJ Stewart just made his return from the injured list on August 16 and has started five of the past six games since then. The O’s seem committed to giving him an extended look in the outfield, if he’s able to stay healthy, which has been an issue for him at the major league level this season.
Jace Peterson has been getting some starts in left field since his own recall, but hopefully that subplot has come to an end with a healthy Stewart returning to the club. There are just too many other capable outfielders the team should give playing time to, other than a journeyman utility guy like Peterson.
Despite collecting five hits in his last 11 at-bats, Stewart is only hitting .205 this season in 13 games. Strangely enough, the lefty-hitting Stewart has reverse splits at the plate in his limited big league action, slashing .125/.160/.167 against right-handed pitchers and .294/.294/.294 against lefties. In the minors this year, Stewart had an .844 OPS against righties and a .968 OPS against lefties.
With September roster expansion only 10 days away, an interesting name to keep an eye on is Mason Williams. At 28 years old, Williams has been around a bit in his young career. He played in a handful of games for the Yankees from 2015-2017, then appeared in 51 games with the Reds in 2018.
In 110 games this year with Norfolk, Williams is batting .311/.372/.483 with 17 home runs, 61 RBI, 4 stolen bases, 41 walks and 78 strikeouts. He also has a lot of experience in center field, where the Orioles have been trotting out converted infielder Stevie Wilkerson or corner outfielder Anthony Santander more often than not recently.
Austin Hays is another outfielder to keep an eye on. He has not performed up to his usual standards recently, but he did spend a large chunk of time working his way back from injury earlier this year.
Because he appeared in 20 games with the O’s at the tail end of the 2017 season, his service time clock has already started, so the team may be more willing to promote him, as opposed to other players who have yet to make their MLB debut, like Ryan Mountcastle.
Hays has hit .246/.302/.460 with eight home runs, 22 RBI, 10 walks and 44 strikeouts in 47 games with the Tides. Like Williams, Hays can also be used in center field, where the Orioles are sorely lacking right now.
In addition to these potential September call-ups, there is the impending return of Dwight Smith Jr. from the injured list. He’s been out since July 30 with a left calf strain, but he began a rehab assignment this past Monday.
Smith may have started the season strong, with an OPS of .810 in April/March, but that number has gone down each subsequent month. His OPS was .733 in May, .709 in June and .470 in July. But still, it’s hard to see Smith Jr. completely disappearing on the bench when healthy, so it’s fair to expect him to still get some outfield at-bats going forward.
If we’re lucky, the competition in the outfield will give a strong indication in the next month plus as to who are the most capable players of the bunch.