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Orioles positional preview: Outfield

The familiar trio of Cedric Mullins, Anthony Santander and Austin Hays lead the charge, but several young outfielders will have something to say in 2023.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at New York Yankees Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Baltimore’s outfield has represented the most solidified position group in the Mike Elias era. Elias inherited Cedric Mullins, Austin Hays and Anthony Santander from the previous regime and has reaped the benefits.

The trio have endured the duration of the rebuild, but the results have varied quite a bit. Mullins began 2019 as the starting center fielder but fell all the way to Bowie after significant struggles at the plate. He rebounded during the 60-game spring in 2020, but broke out in a big way the following season.

Mullins exploded in 2021 after he dropped switch-hitting to become a full-time left-handed hitter. He went 30/30, produced a .291/.360/.518 slash line and made his first All-Star appearance. Unfortunately, Mullins came back to earth last season.

The 28-year-old stumbled against lefties with a .209/.265/.313 line and only four homers. His speed, defense and success against righties still produced a 3.8 WAR and an appearance on USA’s World Baseball Classic roster.

Mullins benefited from his time around America’s best players and hitting coach Ken Griffey Jr. He will enter 2023 comfortably cemented in center field with a new approach intended to even out his splits.

Santander made his own splash in the WBC for his native Venezuela. He posted a .353 average with a double, triple and two homers in five games against international competition.

The former Rule 5 pick remains with Baltimore after multiple years of trade rumors. He led the Orioles with 33 home runs and 89 RBIs last season. Santander represents a staple in the middle of the order, but his defense may have run its course.

Santander posted a -4 Outs Above Average and a -6.1 Ultimate Zone Rating last season. Baltimore mostly restricted Santander to right field with the new wall out in left, but the 28-year-old still made 37 starts in left field across major league parks.

Santander should receive increased time as the designated hitter, and could even make a start or two at first base, but will still make appearances in the outfield. He started in right during last night’s spring training game, and Baltimore does not appear willing to lock any player into a full-time DH role.

Austin Hays rounds out the trio with a giant question mark. As Paul Folkemer noted in the Orioles vs. Projections series, Hays slashed .287/.345/.489 through his first 70 games before limping into the All-Star break with a brutal 3-for-42 stretch. The former top prospect hit just .220 in 60 games after the break.

Hays boasts an above average arm but holds split defensive metrics. He posted a 4.0 UZR last season but a -6 in OAA. Either way, he ranks ahead of Santander on the defensive power rankings. The questions center on his ability to stay healthy and perform at the plate for a full season.

Kyle Stowers and Ryan McKenna are expected to return to the 26-man roster and provide depth. McKenna ranks as an above average outfielder at all three positions, but he’s not all defense. The 26-year-old slashed .270/.333/.460 against lefties last season and eventually worked his way into a platoon with Mullins.

McKenna’s playing time could depend on how Mullins fares against lefties, but either way he possesses the speed and defensive versatility required for a fourth outfielder. Stowers, on the other hand, likely has his sights set on a starting role.

Stowers made his mark with a game-tying homer against Liam Hendriks back in August. The rookie settled into a groove slashing .253/.306/.418 over 34 games but only received four appearances against left handers.

Stowers appeared to have some difficulty adjusting to the lights and third deck in major league parks, but he grades as another speedy defender capable of playing center field in a pinch.

Both Stowers and McKenna appear on pace to break camp with the team, but their spots are not guaranteed. Ryan O’Hearn, Lewin Díaz, and Franchy Cordero are all battling for a backup first base job that may or may not exist. O’Hearn and Cordero can both play corner outfield in a pinch, which would bring even more defensive versatility to Baltimore’s infield.

Free agent addition Adam Frazier can play both corners, and Baltimore’s infield depth could force him to the grass from time to time. Terrin Vavra is fighting for a utility spot and possesses a similar skill set to Frazier.

Plenty will be sorted out before Colton Cowser receives a promotion, but the Top-100 prospect is coming. Heston Kjerstad still feels a full year away, but the top performer from the Arizona Fall League has impressed this spring.

The original trio and Stowers are considered the favorites for playing time, but McKenna could surprise folks with another strong showing against lefties. Cowser will need to bust down the door if he hopes to arrive before the dog days of summer, but he’ll have that opportunity at Norfolk. Hays, McKenna, and even Stowers will face pressure to perform with Baltimore pursuing its first playoff appearance since 2016.