When the team you root for is in the midst of a full-scale rebuild and about to begin an abnormal 60-game season, it might take some digging to find reasons to tune in on a regular basis. For these Orioles, the outfield (or parts of it, at least) presents one of those reasons.
This unit will be without its best player, Trey Mancini, who is undergoing treatment for colon cancer. Where on the field Mancini was going to spend most of his 2020 season prior to surgery was unclear. He is a first baseman by nature, but has spent most of his career in the outfield, including 92 games throughout the 2019 campaign.
Whatever the case, Mancini’s absence will be felt throughout the clubhouse. His teammates will fill his spot in the lineup and on the field, but they can only hope to replace his production. Quite likely, they will fall well short.
The headliner of the group in its current state is 25-year-old Austin Hays. The rookie made his big league debut in 2017, becoming the first member of the 2016 draft to reach the majors, but injuries and middling on-field performance since then kept him away from Baltimore until this past September.
Hays quickly became the most interesting thing about the last-place Orioles. Over 21 games, he slashed .309/.373/.574 and posted a 146 wRC+ while making highlight reel catches in center field.
Projections don’t expect him to maintain his hot streak at the plate. ZiPs saddles him with just an 89 wRC+ and believes his plate discipline will regress to where it was with Triple-A Norfolk for much of the 2019 season. Even still, Hays plays enough defense and provides enough upside at the plate to be in the Rookie of the Year discussion for the next two months.
Who will start in center field most nights is settled, but the situation in the corners is very different.
Two of the contenders for playing time were late to summer training as a result of testing positive for COVID-19. Anthony Santander and Dwight Smith Jr. both received their positives following the Orioles intake test at the beginning of July. Due to the mandatory quarantine, both players just returned to practice last week.
Regardless, Santander appears to be locked into a regular role of some sort. His .476 slugging percentage in 2019 was second-best on the club among players with at least 100 plate appearances, behind only Mancini. The question is which corner Santander will occupy. He spent time in all three spots last season, although he was most often found in right field.
Smith is almost exclusively a left fielder. All 695.2 innings he spent in the field in 2019 came at the position. That’s fine as long as his bat is hot, like it was at the start of last season. Through May 4, Smith hit .298/.348/.512 with six home runs and eight doubles in just 31 games. The trouble is that he would play in an additional 70 games, but hit just seven more home runs and eight more doubles.
A concussion followed by a left calf strain landed Smith on the injured list twice and resulted in a demotion to Triple-A Norfolk last August. His late arrival to summer camp may force the Orioles to send him to their alternate site in Bowie until he is back up to speed.
Smith will have to fight former first-round pick DJ Stewart for the lion’s share of time in left field. The two have somewhat similar profiles in that both are left handed hitters with average power and sub-par defensive skills.
Stewart is a year younger than Smith and possesses better plate discipline. His trouble recently has been staying healthy. The 26-year-old had surgery on his right ankle in late October after missing two months during the regular season, and he also dealt with concussion symptoms following a mistimed sliding catch attempt. Stewart is 100% as the regular season nears and should make the 30-man Opening Day roster with ease.
Hard-hitting prospect Ryan Mountcastle is also said to be in the outfield mix. He is listed with the infielders on the Orioles roster, but manager Brandon Hyde recently told reporters that the club is “prioritizing his outfield work.”
The dude can rake, as was on display in the Orioles exhibition game against the Phillies on Sunday evening. He has consistently rated as an above-average during his time climbing the minor league ladder and was named as the International League MVP in 2019, for what that’s worth.
Off the bench and out of the park. pic.twitter.com/XHj9MYCtwa— Baltimore Orioles (@Orioles) July 20, 2020
If the Orioles were going to attempt to put the absolute best team on the field, Mountcastle would likely make the Opening Day roster. But they are going to play the service time game with him, so he will begin the year at Bowie before making a debut sometime towards the end of the summer.
Another prospect worth keeping an eye on is Yusniel Diaz. He was the centerpiece of the deal that sent Manny Machado to Los Angeles in 2018. The 23-year-old has since fallen off some top 100 prospect lists and struggled with some injuries. But he had a 135 wRC+ in 76 games with Bowie in 2019. The club added him to the summer training roster last week and currently have him working out in their secondary location. There may not be room for him in the big leagues in 2020, but things can change as he will be eyeing a spot in 2021.
Stevie Wilkerson is in camp with the O’s after being designated for assignment over the winter. The 72 games he spent in center field last year was tops on the team, and he had his good days. But there are better options in the organization. Wilkerson’s ability to play the infield and the expansion of rosters to 30 players for Opening Day may allow him to find a spot on the team for the time being, but it’s tough to see how he will make it through the entire season.
Similar things can be said regarding Andrew Velazquez. The Orioles claimed him off waivers from the Indians in February. The 26-year-old is an infielder first, but has the athleticism to play outfield as well.
Velazquez also has three significant advantages over Wilkerson. He’s younger. He’s already on the 40-man roster. And advanced metrics rate him as a better defender. Add in Wilkerson’s early exit from the exhibition game on Sunday, and Velazquez would seem to have a clear leg up.
Two other players that may factor into the Orioles outfield will be Cedric Mullins and Mason Williams.
Mullins really struggled in 22 big league games last year, hitting .094/.181/.156. Things didn’t go much better when he was demoted to Triple-A (.205/.272/.306). In fact, the switch hitter got knocked all the way down to Double-A before he found his groove. But he has maintained his spot on the 40-man roster, may be the fastest player in camp and has the tools to be a solid defender. Should Hays get hurt, Mullins could get some big league innings.
Williams played a handful of games with the Orioles in 2019 after spending most of the summer in Norfolk, where he put up a nice 117 wRC+ in 121 games. The former top prospect has made a habit of knocking around minor league pitching but struggling to do the same in the majors. He can play all three outfield positions in a pinch, but fits best in the corners. If things are going well for the O’s, the 28-year-old Williams will likely be spending the next two months in Bowie.
There is a lot to like about the Orioles outfield situation in 2020. Hays plays an exciting brand of baseball. Santander has some pop in his bat. Stewart is finally going to get a full-time opportunity. Smith Jr. has shown his upside at the plate in small spurts. And Mountcastle is a 23-year-old slugger that will be ready for the big leagues any day now. This two-month mini season will serve as a primer for what should be an even more interesting 2021 for this group.