The Orioles’ first lineup of spring training nearly six months ago brought with it the news that Cedric Mullins had abandoned switch-hitting and thus assumptions that he and Austin Hays would form a left-right platoon to patrol center field for Baltimore.
In actuality, that never materialized; Hays was hurt in the Orioles’ season-opening series, and despite having not faced left-handed pitching as a left-handed hitter since high school, Mullins thrived in those situations and most others, leading to a breakout season and All-Star selection.
Hays, formerly Baltimore’s top prospect, now seemingly finds himself in another platoon, this time in left field with DJ Stewart, a former first-round draft pick. Hays has been in the lineup against a right-handed starter only once in five such games on this homestand, with that start coming against former Oriole Dylan Bundy, who has reverse splits and pitches more effectively against opposite-handed batters.
And yet, Hays has been in the lineup for every game facing a left-handed starter since being activated from his second injured list stint of the year in early June. Hays entered Saturday batting .290/.327/.536 against lefties, compared with a .214/.267/.355 line off right-handers. Pinch-hitting for Stewart against a left-hander in Saturday night’s 4-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays, he tripled off the right-field wall.
Stewart, a left-handed hitter, has also struggled against same-handed pitchers, batting .205/.295/.205 against them with no extra-base hits. He hit .202/.333/.419 off right-handers before going 1-for-2 against Tampa Bay’s Michael Wacha on Saturday, his 20th start in the Orioles’ past 22 games against a right-handed starter. The exceptions in that stretch were the game against Bundy and another in which the Rays used an opener in front of a left-handed long reliever. Stewart hasn’t drawn a start against a lefty since July 4.
The season began with Stewart on the IL for a left hamstring strain, with the Orioles’ outfield alignment from left to right being Hays, Mullins and reigning Most Valuable Oriole Anthony Santander as Ryan Mountcastle served as the designated hitter. When Hays suffered a right quad strain in the third game of the season, Mountcastle initially took over as Baltimore’s primary left fielder, but he largely struggled on both sides of the ball throughout April. Mountcastle hasn’t played left field since June 27; he’s since split first base and DH duties with Trey Mancini and entered Saturday posting an .847 OPS in that span.
Santander’s nagging left ankle injury, starting with a sprain suffered the day Hays returned from his early-season strain, has hampered him much of the year, but he has been one of baseball’s top hitters in August. Entering the weekend, his 1.055 OPS this month trailed only New York Yankees slugger Giancarlo Stanton among American League players.
With Mullins set to play practically every night — he’s started 120 of 128 games — and Santander’s season turning around while either Mountcastle or Mancini occupy the DH spot, that leaves only one slot in Hyde’s lineup for Hays or Stewart. Of late, he’s gone with the batter with a platoon advantage.
“It’s just getting Stew some more at-bats,” Hyde said. “You’ll see both of them out there together in the lineup. Just right now with kind of the way Santander’s swinging the bat and obviously keeping Ced in the lineup, both Mountcastle, Mancini kind of that DH first base spot, just kind of picking my spots with both those guys.”
Even when they don’t start, Hays and Stewart remain useful pieces for Hyde. Hays is, by far, the superior defender and has replaced Stewart late in each game he didn’t start on this homestand. Stewart leads the Orioles in pinch-hit plate appearances, but he’s only 1-for-10 in those situations. Hays started the year 0-for-3 as a pinch-hitter but has delivered extra-base hits in his past two chances, including a two-run double that helped the Orioles end their 19-game losing streak.
With Mountcastle out of the outfield picture and Hays and Stewart sharing left field, there’s an opportunity for another player to emerge, but the two outfield prospects on Baltimore’s 40-man roster haven’t capitalized. Hays’ injury meant Ryan McKenna made his major league debut early in the season, and while he’s thrived in Triple-A with 11 home runs and a 1.106 OPS in 27 games, his major league OPS is .615. Yusniel Diaz, the former top prospect acquired as the centerpiece of the trade that sent Manny Machado to the Los Angeles Dodgers, has dealt with injuries throughout the year and hasn’t performed when on the field, posting a .509 OPS between Norfolk and Double-A Bowie while striking out nearly 30% of the time.
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Coming into the year, the Orioles had six outfielders who could contend for playing time. As the season nears its final month, they appear to be down to two and a couple of halves.