With the 2016 season finished, there’s no better time than the present to take stock of the Orioles’ organizational depth at every position around the diamond.
We’ll break down every position individually and separate the players all through the system into three categories: who was the man there this year, who else was in the picture, and who is working through the minors to join them. Today, it’s center field, which is the domain of Adam Jones. How long will that last?
The man: This season pretty much had it all for Adam Jones, who had a streak of five straight All-Star appearances snapped in a season that saw him bat .265/.310/.436 with 29 home runs. He started out terribly after a back injury limited him over the first few weeks of the season, but a late-May move to the leadoff spot sparked him to get back close to his career levels.
However, those two lost months at the beginning and a 13-for-81 (.159) swoon down the stretch caused this to be, statistically, Jones’ worst season since his first full season, 2008. That can be said for traditional measures, like OPS (.746), and untraditional measures, like weighted on-base average (wOBA, .319) and weighted runs created plus (WRC+, 95).
That said, Jones was put in some uncomfortable positions this year. Leading off doesn’t exactly suit a free-swinging power hitter like Jones, but he filled that need for the team admirably and came away with a career-high 39 walks. The same goes defensively, where the Orioles’ aim to improve the defense around him wasn’t met and Jones had to sacrifice some of his own personal range and evaluations to cover for defensive deficiencies around him. Once again, most popular defensive metrics didn’t view Jones favorably, but he’s still the best defender the Orioles had out there.
The alternatives: Though many men spelled Jones in center field over the course of the season, their lack of depth there was a constant issue. It began as Joey Rickard’s job earlier in the season — in fact, the ability to back up Jones was a major factor in him making the team. But when he went out with a torn thumb ligament in late July, the Orioles were in a tough place.
They added veteran Julio Borbon to the roster when they had the space to, but when Jones was dealing with a hamstring injury in August, they had to turn to Nolan Reimold in a pinch before adding Borbon back and, eventually, bringing in outside reinforcements.
On Aug. 31, the Orioles traded for Michael Bourn and claimed Drew Stubbs off waivers. Bourn grew into a more significant role as September rolled on, but both were viewed as defensive depth who could fill in for Jones in center field.
The future: With all due respect to major league veterans like Borbon, L.J. Hoes, and Xavier Avery, they’re pretty known quantities at this point, so they can be skipped at a position of relative intrigue going forward.
Two of the more interesting center fielders in the Orioles system are still a long way away, but that doesn’t discount the years they had. Cedric Mullins hit .273/.321/.464 with 37 doubles, 10 triples, 14 home runs, and 30 stolen bases in 124 games for Class-A Delmarva. The 2015 13th-round pick was the only player in the system with double-digits in all four of those categories, and one of seven players across the entire minor leagues to do so.
A level below him in Short-Season Class-A Aberdeen, Ryan McKenna, the team’s 2015 fourth-round pick, didn’t post those kinds of statistics. He hit .241 with a dozen extra-base hits in 62 games for the Ironbirds, but is a physical, athletic player who can handle center field and with his already-strong frame could develop over-the-fence power before long.
Two players split time in center field for High-A Frederick — Josh Hart and Jay Gonzalez. Hart, the supplemental first-round pick from 2013, repeated the level and needed a hot finish to the season to bring his average to .223 on the season. Gonzalez, 21, hit .251 with 43 stolen bases between Frederick and Double-A Bowie.
Bowie’s main center fielder was Glynn Davis (Northeast). He hit .251 for the Baysox.
The skinny: Even with all that talent in the low minors, there’s a major gap between those young prospects and Jones, the team’s center fielder for at least the next two years.
In the short term, that should be sufficient for a team with the Orioles’ playoff aspirations. A move back into the heart of the lineup would put a run-producer back in that spot, and replacing Jones with a more suitable leadoff man could improve the Orioles' lineup in multiple ways.
If you’re already planning for a post-Jones world, it will take another year or two of development to feel even remotely comfortable saying anyone in the system — even someone like Rickard — can be the Orioles’ center fielder of the future.