Glove first or bat first: Orioles face dilemma of how to fill outfield

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Offense or defense, that is the question facing the Orioles as they determine which OFs to bring North.

This week's debut of Trey Mancini in the outfield and the signing of Pedro Alvarez with that same transition in his future, combined with the Orioles' influx of glove-first outfielders on minor league deals, means the clubhouse in Sarasota is teeming with players competing for a bench spot or two with an outfield designation attached to it.

The candidates brought in to compete for the same scarce opportunity on the big league roster are as varied as the offense-first Alvarez and Mancini, and the defense-first Craig Gentry and Michael Bourn. With that being the case, the question doesn't become who is an outfielder in the modern game, but instead who isn't one? And how does the team evaluate them against each other when each player brings disparate skills to the club?

"It depends on what the needs of the club are," manager Buck Showalter said.

"Do they need another big bat in the lineup, or do they need a guy that is going to be more defensively focused or have speed?" said outfielder Craig Gentry, who has emerged as a popular candidate to be one of the team's spare outfielders. "It kind of comes down to your need. That comes down to the manager, and those guys that make those decisions. It's out of our hands, but whatever the team needs is obviously what they're going to do."

Determining that, Showalter said, will be dependent on more than just a straight evaluation of each candidate independent of one another. Having context as a key will make things a lot easier. It's impossible to compare them on skills alone, though which direction the Orioles go for what will likely be two available outfield spots will tell a lot about whether they've changed their philosophy much of late.

During the offseason, center fielder Adam Jones publicly called out the lack of athleticism and speed in the outfield. Flanking him on most days last season were Mark Trumbo and Hyun Soo Kim, and the Orioles ranked last in most measurements for outfield defense and range.

Both, in the team's estimation, did enough with their bats to make them just as valuable as counterparts who might not hit as well but field their position better. Anyone who brings the total package to the table, Trumbo notes, gets a massive contract to do so.

The teams that can't afford those players end up having to piece it together, usually with players who do one thing much better than the other. Even the team's two Rule 5 outfielders, the speedy Aneury Tavarez and the hit-first Anthony Santander, represent the dichotomy.

This year, Seth Smith joins the Orioles' mix as someone who, like Kim, is expected to play every day against right-handed pitching. That leaves two bench spots, presumably for players who are at least nominally outfielders. A left-handed bat would help, but defensive cover has seemed to be the priority. And especially early this spring, when the club signed Gentry and Bourn, Jones' thoughts were acknowledged in the form of new faces.

Joey Rickard, who homered for the second straight day and is batting .385 so far this spring, qualifies as all those things and could have one of the available spots cemented if he stays on his current path.

But others in camp include Chris Dickerson and Logan Schafer, both of whom are also showing they can handle any outfield position defensively at a major league level. Bourn could be back right at the end of camp after breaking his finger last month, but all four represent players for whom the rhythms, reads and routines of an outfielder are standard.

Schafer explains: "I've done it long enough. I know how to get jumps, where to go, how the wind's blowing, how the ball's going to ricochet off walls."

Alvarez and Mancini, two other candidates for the spots, are only now becoming acquainted with the outfield. Mancini made his second start in right field Tuesday, and after a handful of routine plays on hits Monday, fluffed his lines on his first real chance at a play. A diving line drive fell a few steps from a pursuing Mancini in the first inning, and as he tried to play it on a hop, dropped it to allow the runner to go to second base. He was charged with an error, but the rest of his afternoon out there was clean.

It's not the first time the Orioles have taken a bat they liked and slapped a new position on the player, as evidenced by last year's move to left field for minor league slugger Christian Walker. However, he never got a chance to contribute to the outfield-needy Orioles last year, was designated for assignment and was lost on waivers last month.

Though Alvarez will be a full-time outfielder, Mancini still has first base to fall back on. And even if the glovework doesn't go their way, each will still have his bat.

"Everyone has their tag," Mancini said. "I don't know what you'd call me with my tag right now. But you can probably label some guys one or the other. Either way, defense is definitely of utmost importance, especially in this organization. Everybody takes that very seriously, but if you are stronger in one area, everyone's going to try to improve in the other areas and become more balanced."

For the other set, defense is how they make a club. Gentry and Schafer both came up as fourth outfielders earlier in their careers, while Dickerson has gotten most of his major league time as a platoon outfielder against righties in his career. Bourn, a two-time All-Star, has been a threat in every facet of the game over his time in the majors, though he has hit less in recent years.

For the veteran Bourn, the Orioles' multi-pronged approach to filling their outfield is all down to personal preference. His is clear.

"Certain teams have certain ways to operate, and I know one thing that will never change: Defense will always win championships. Always," Bourn said. "I know that. But I think offense is also important. It goes both ways."

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