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Orioles positional preview: Outfield

The team’s most solid position group is also its least interesting in terms of roster construction, with the three starters locked in and only the fourth spot open.

Los Angeles Angels v Baltimore Orioles
With any luck, you’ll probably be seeing this outfield combo often this season.
Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

“That’s where I’m at, and that’s all there is. That’s all I got to tell you, and that’s all I know, to be honest with you. I don’t have any idea after that.” So said manager Brandon Hyde last Thursday when asked about the 28-man roster.

Got to admire his candor, if not his advanced planning.

At some point between today and noon on Opening Day (April 7th), the Orioles will have to make 14 cuts to get the roster down from 40 players to 28. (On May 2nd, rosters will have to be cut down again to 26 players.) Spring training cuts are always a suspenseful process … unless you’re an Orioles outfield watcher, in which case, the bare-knuckle fight for the fourth outfielder spot is the only drama you’re going to get.

With Cedric Mullins, MLB’s only 30-30 man in 2021, in center, Austin Hays and his cannon of an arm in left, and the switch-hitting power of Anthony Santander in right field, the Orioles outfield is locked in, one of the few position groups with starters who could all potentially hack it on another team.

There are lots of important questions you could ask about this trio, but none that needs answering before April 7. How much playing time will the three outfielders see together? Can Cedric Mullins repeat what he did in 2021? Can Austin Hays play a full season of healthy baseball? What about Santander’s health, for that matter? And if Tony Taters does show up healthy and play well, will he get dealt away mid-season? Important questions which will become clearer in their own time.

As for the projections, the pundits are expecting solid-but-not-spectacular seasons from this trio. For Mullins, PECOTA predicts a regression to being just good-to-average: a .250 average and 17 homers, for 2.2 WAR. Fangraphs agrees, putting Mullins at .257 with 25 homers in 150 games for a team-leading 3.0 WAR. Shortly behind is Hays with a predicted average between .252-.257 and 21-25 HRs in 130 games. Santander is expected to have a productive year, too, with a .247-.251 average and somewhere between 24 and 26 home runs in 130 games. Most O’s fans won’t be happy about those miserly predictions for Mullins, but I think we’d agree that getting 130 games and 20+ home runs each from Hays and Santander would be nice.

Which brings us to the fourth outfielder spot. For a while in spring training, it looked like there was a chance an exciting prospect could force himself into the conversation. Now it looks like Mike Elias & Co. were never actually going to chance it, which perhaps makes sense given the shortened spring and the negligible track records of Triple-A success of Yusniel Díaz, Robert Neustrom, and Kyle Stowers. Not even a 1.250 OPS this spring from Díaz could save him from the roster buzzsaw, and a 1-for-14 effort from Neustrom and 2-for-21 performance by Stowers with 9 K’s weren’t enough to convince O’s brass to roll the dice. (The upside: Stowers’ swing and power impressed a lot of people, including John Means, who told MASN that Stowers’ smooth lefty swing was one of “the prettiest” he’s seen since Ken Griffey, Jr.)

This leaves the more seasoned, albeit maybe less exciting options for the fourth spot. The remaining outfielders listed on the Orioles’ 40-man roster are: Ryan McKenna, DJ Stewart, Jorge Mateo, and Tyler Nevin. (I’m not counting Trey Mancini even if he is getting his reps in right field because he is making the team as a DH, and because when it’s a tie game in the eighth inning, Mancini’s is not the glove that Brandon Hyde is sending out there.)

Given these choices, it should be Ryan McKenna who, with his speed and ability to play all three positions, starts the season with the Orioles in the fourth outfielder spot. Nobody else on this list offers defensive reliability, and Brandon Hyde has proven a fan of late-innings replacements and positional versatility. It doesn’t hurt that the 25-year-old McKenna is finally showing some pop with the bat: he’s only 4-for-29 this spring, but all of his hits have gone for extra bases (two doubles and two dingers).

My gut feeling is that this was the likely outcome even if DJ Stewart hadn’t been limited to all of four spring training games after getting hit on the left hand while swinging on March 23rd. Stewart has now resumed hitting activities, but with so little in-game action, it’ll be a no-brainer to shelve him in Triple-A to start the season to see if he finally develops that offensive consistency the team has been waiting for.

One other interesting wrinkle in the outfield roster calculations is that, with the team set to experiment with starting pitching tandems (most excitingly, with Tyler Wells, who posted a 3.63 FIP with 65 K’s in 57 IP last year as a closer, in the fifth rotation spot), this means more roster spots for pitchers and a shorter bench. For now, Orioles beat writers are guessing the team will begin the season with 15 pitchers and a four-man bench.

Conceivably, Brandon Hyde could prioritize INF/OF types like Jorge Mateo and Tyler Nevin, who are both high-upside prospects who can play outfield in a pinch. With his strong spring, Mateo seems a lock to make the team as an infielder anyway (.350 BA/.409 OBP/1.209 OPS). Nevin hasn’t hit as well this spring as his boosters would like to see (6-for-27 with a .714 OPS), but he’s impressed defensively at every position Brandon Hyde has placed him: first base, third base, and left field. The need for an extra outfield glove could help Nevin break into the roster as an outside candidate.

Ultimately, though, Brandon Hyde’s biggest roster headaches lie outside of this group, in the infield and the rotation (actually, for that matter, in the bullpen, too, not to mention behind the plate). The final construction of the outfield roster will depend on the results of those tougher battles. There are lots of decisions still to make this week, so stay tuned.