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Orioles positional preview: Outfield

The Birds are returning all the pieces from last year’s strong outfield group and will look to build on their past success in the new season.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Boston Red Sox
From left to right: Orioles’ players Cedric Mullins, Ryan Mountcastle, and Austin Hays celebrate together in the outfield at Fenway Park in Boston.
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The Orioles’ outfield contingent comes into the 2021 season with high expectations, and after their success in 2020, many folks are referring to this unit as the club’s biggest strength. Baltimore’s outfielders hit .264/.331/.465 last season as a group, with 31 home runs and a .796 OPS. And the main contributors from last year are all returning too.

Let’s start with Cedric Mullins, who had a tumultuous start to his major league career. After a cup of coffee near the end of 2018, when Mullins hit .235/.312/.359 in 45 games, the young outfielder was unable to build on that performance the following year.

After making the club out of spring training in 2019, Mullins batted only .094/.181/.156 in the first few weeks of that season and fell off the radar when he was optioned to the minors before the calendar could change to May. But he sure did re-establish himself in the Covid-shortened 2020 season, showcasing his ability to disrupt games with his speed, fielding, and ability to lay down a bunt with the best of them.

Mullins opened eyes last season in more ways than one, but it was his defense that stood out to manager Brandon Hyde and prompted these comments from the O’s skipper near the end of the 2020 season:

“Some of those plays on balls over [Mullins’] head that he just glides to and catches easy, those are really difficult plays that a lot of guys don’t get to. I knew he was a good defender...but this has opened my eyes to where this is an elite defensive center fielder that should be in the Gold Glove consideration.”

In 50 at-bats this spring, the former switch-hitter — now left-handed hitter — slashed .260/.309/.440 with a .749 OPS, one home run, three stolen bases, three walks, and eight strikeouts.

Things to watch for with Mullins include where he hits in the batting order, his production as a left-handed batter exclusively, and how much playing time he gets in center versus Austin Hays.

Like Mullins, Hays was given ample playing time this spring, and in 50 at-bats, he accrued 20 hits (.392 BA), including four doubles, four home runs, and a triple — good for a .745 SLG. He led all Orioles batters with a 1.192 OPS this spring — not counting DJ Stewart, who only played in three games.

Hays will have to prove himself more durable this year to show what he’s truly capable of. Injuries have slowed his major league progress time and time again. He missed a large portion of last season with a rib fracture and has battled various injuries going back to 2018. But all the tools are there.

It will be interesting to see where Hyde puts Hays in the batting order because he could profile as a top of the order or middle of the order bat. And as stated before, time will tell who gets more action in center field between him and Mullins.

Moving onto the injury front, there are a pair of outfielders with varying chances of starting the season on time. We’ll start with the player more likely to be there on Opening Day today.

Anthony Santander, the breakout Oriole of 2020, put up a batting line of .310/.487/.379/.866 this spring, and although he didn’t hit any home runs, he walked more than he struck out by a ratio of 10:7.

But he missed the end of spring training with an injury to his side (read: oblique), and the O’s had been cagey about his status for a while. The dreaded oblique injury can mean many weeks lost in today’s game. But luckily, Hyde came out yesterday and said Santander would be good to go for the opener against Boston.

The Birds will need Santander to continue his hot streak from last season when he hit .261/.315/.575 with a .890 OPS and 138 OPS+ before succumbing to a right oblique strain and missing almost the entire month of September. And did I mention he was in the running for a Gold Glove in right field last season? The kid is only 26 years old and still has room to grow, so he’s a player to keep a close eye on.

Speaking of injuries, all indications are that DJ Stewart will begin the year on the IL. He only registered eight at-bats this spring before getting shelved due to a hamstring injury.

Stewart appeared in 31 games last season and put up an OPS of .809 with a .355 OBP and .455 SLG. But his batting average didn’t even break .200 (it was .193).

Working the count and earning walks has never been a problem for Stewart, as evidenced by his career .358 OBP in the minors. It’d be nice if that plate patience would rub off on some other O’s hitters. But we’ll have to wait a while for his hamstring to see if that’s even a possibility.

Onto a much-discussed young hitter who has retained his rookie eligibility heading into the 2021 season: Ryan Mountcastle. It looks like he will get more run in the outfield this year after spending most of his time out there in 2020, even though his defense still leaves something to be desired. His questionable routes and ball judgment were on full display this spring. Yet to be determined is whether he will see time at first base, although that seems to be Trey Mancini’s domain with Chris Davis on the 60-day IL.

This spring, he slashed .235/.245/.569/.814 with four home runs and five doubles. The plate impatience he was known for throughout the minors showed itself down in Sarasota as he walked once in 51 at-bats.

But what a debut it was in 2020 for Mountcastle, who wasted no time adjusting to the majors upon recall from the alternate training site at Bowie, hitting .333/.386/.492/.878 with a 140 OPS+ and five home runs in 140 plate appearances. Can he keep it up and maintain his aggressiveness without striking out too much? We shall see.

So while the Orioles outfield is short on experience, it is also full of promise. With another bleak-looking season on the horizon, O’s fans need any morsel of hope they can cling to, and this crop of outfielders offers just that. Again, health will be a huge factor, as the injury bug has already reared its head for a few of these guys and will need to be kept in check even more so as the season progresses.