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The Orioles’ outfield depth is being tested early

Baltimore has dealt with injuries in the outfield early on, and they will need to keep players like Austin Hays and DJ Stewart healthy moving forward.

Baltimore Orioles v Texas Rangers
Orioles outfielders (left to right) Ryan McKenna, Cedric Mullins, and Anthony Santander celebrate a victory.
Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

This spring, when the Orioles outfield was being discussed as the team’s strength, no one imagined the need to fill in for multiple injuries this early in the season. But the depth of that perceived strength is being tested, and we’re not even through April.

Three weeks into the 2021 MLB season, Orioles’ outfielders are batting a collective .268/.324/.407. The O’s have a much lower .223/.282/.373 triple-slash line at the plate as a team.

The outfield has managed to produce relatively well at the plate, especially when you consider the unit hasn’t been at full strength. The injuries even started before Opening Day.

DJ Stewart was the first casualty when a left hamstring strain cropped up in Sarasota at the beginning of the Grapefruit League. He missed the vast majority of spring training, and his injury carried over to the regular season. Stewart started the month on the IL and missed the first seven games of the season before returning on April 10th.

Since rejoining the O’s, Stewart has been a breath of fresh air. In 32 at-bats, he’s managed six walks to go along with a .250/.368/.406 batting line. He may only have one home run at the moment, but that slugging percentage could rise quickly with a power surge like Stewart proved capable of last summer.

About five days before Stewart’s reactivation, Austin Hays was the next outfielder to face injury. On April 4th against Boston, Hays was lifted for a pinch-runner two batters after reaching base via RBI double. The next day, he was placed on the 10-day IL with a right hamstring strain.

After missing 15 days, from April 5th to the 20th, Hays returned healthy just two games ago. And not a second too soon.

News broke yesterday that Anthony Santander will miss the next two to four weeks with a sprained left ankle. He injured it two days ago while trying to get back to first base on a pickoff attempt.

The injury looked bad in terms of Santander’s reaction, as he couldn’t put any weight on the ankle and was helped off the field. Pure speculation here, but if it’s a high-ankle sprain like we see knock NFL players out for weeks at a time, we can hope for a two-week recovery period but should prepare for longer.

That makes the prospect of seeing Yusniel Diaz more interesting. Would the O’s be more inclined to call up someone like Diaz if they can commit to consistent playing time for him? Santander’s absence might be just the opening Diaz needs.

In 286 at-bats with Double-A Bowie in 2019, Diaz hit .262/.335/.472 with 11 home runs. In his four-season minor league career, he owns a .278/.355/.440 slash line at the plate.

Although Cedric Mullins started the year on fire and is hitting .333/.397/.485 to date, he has cooled off considerably. In the past seven days, he’s hitting .130/.167/.174. And while it’s unrealistic to expect Mullins to hit .400 all year, like he was a week ago, it’s easier to endure slumps when there’s a viable backup on hand.

For this club, a viable backup in center field means either Hays or Ryan McKenna. But if multiple outfielders are down simultaneously, the remaining talent becomes stretched thin. That exact situation has not occurred, but earlier in April, the club was without Hays and Stewart at the same time.

While McKenna has been the Orioles’ initial option for outfield reinforcements — being recalled to replace Hays first and then Santander — he could fit more neatly into a fourth outfielder role. He’s already shown value with his pinch-running and defensive replacement skills.

On the other hand, there has been a more general consensus as to the upside of Diaz’s bat. Since he profiles as more of a high-impact, everyday player, it would make sense to give Diaz an extended look with Santander on the shelf for potentially a month. There’s a chance the young outfielder could be fed regular at-bats if the O’s are willing to start his arbitration clock.

Other than Diaz and the injured Santander, every outfielder on the Orioles’ 40-man roster is also on the 26-man right now. That includes McKenna, Hays, Mullins, Stewart, and Ryan Mountcastle.

If the outfield depth is tested any further, we could see the O’s look outside the organization for help, as they have done in the past. While that may be a necessity at some point, it would be much more exciting to see players already in the system get a chance to prove they should stick around.