With spring training chugging right along, each day brings us a step closer to the 26-man opening day roster. Since we know that MLB roster expansion this year will include a maximum of 13 active pitchers until September, that means the Orioles will have to carry 13 position players too. What’s still not certain is how the extra roster spot might impact the bench, especially the outfield.
Alex Church wrote a great piece yesterday on Cedric Mullins, and with Trey Mancini’s status unclear, a guy like Mullins now has a greater chance of making the team. But it’s anyone’s guess as to how much playing time the club would give the switch-hitter, considering that at least two of three outfield spots already seem covered.
Coming into spring training, it seemed like the Birds had a decent group of players to occupy the green expanse of Camden Yards in 2020. But that notion comes from the warped viewpoint of an O’s fan who saw the team sift through 15 options in the outfield last season and lose so any games that it seems the only place to go is up. Of those 15 players, 11 got some kind of extended look in the outfield.
The potential is there for the Orioles outfield to excite fans, but the group as a whole still short on depth and experience.
Anthony Santander was a pleasant surprise last season, hitting .261/.297/.476 with 20 home runs, a .773 OPS and 101 OPS+. Those numbers looked even better before a late September slump. If you only looked at season’s end, you might wonder what all the fuss was about for a guy who ended the season with an OBP below .300. It would be nice to see him improve in that area this year.
Another thing to consider with Santander is health, seeing as he finished last season with a sore throwing shoulder and it has carried into the spring, with the Orioles even slow playing him in the field. So it would be prudent for the O’s to have a backup plan in the event that he misses time or continues to be limited defensively.
Going back to last September, another young outfielder injected some hope into the fan base when he hit .309/.373/.574 in 75 September plate appearances. That man’s name is Austin Hays, who has carried his impressive defense into the spring. Hays seems destined to break camp with the team in center field, though it’s worth noting he’s scuffled at the plate so far in Grapefruit League action.
Dwight Smith Jr. had an up and down 2019 that was also marred by a few injuries. After starting strong with a .810 OPS in April/March last season, that number fell to .725 by the All-Star break. The second half of the season was even worse, with Smith Jr. posting a .658 OPS over that time.
Presently, those three guys are lined up to have the most playing time in the outfield early on. But we all know how manager Brandon Hyde likes to move his players around. There’s also the matter of handling platoon splits and protecting young guys while putting them in the best position to succeed. Building and maintaining confidence is key here in a rebuild.
As far as platoon scenarios, Smith Jr. is the most obvious candidate, seeing that his OPS last year against left-handed pitchers was about 100 points lower than against righties. Since Santander is a switch-hitter and has fairly even left/right splits at the plate, he stands to get consistent playing time if productive and healthy.
Over the course of his brief major league career, Hays has shown extreme reverse splits for a right-handed hitter. He’s got a .899 OPS in 89 at-bats against righties and a .477 OPS in 39 at-bats against lefties.
Other outfielders on the Orioles’ 40-man roster include Ryan McKenna, who had a .686 OPS in Bowie last year and DJ Stewart, who is still working his way back from injury. Non-roster outfielders include super utility man Stevie Wilkerson, promising youngster Yusniel Diaz and journeyman Mason Williams.
Stats courtesy of MiLB and Baseball Reference.