With baseball transitioning into the offseason this week and the hot stove season beginning to simmer, it's time to revisit the Orioles' organizational depth across the diamond as a means to establish where they're strong and which areas they'll need to address, both this offseason and going forward.
For the next two weeks, we'll assess the Orioles' present and future at every position, and recap how both the major and minor leaguers at each spot fared in 2017, today rounding out the position players with the impressive crop of outfielders.
No Orioles position group has come under more scrutiny recently than the outfielders. The group was static for so long with Adam Jones and Nick Markakis, but left and right field have become a revolving door around Jones in center.
Last year, Trey Mancini took over as the everyday left fielder and played opposite a rotating cast of Seth Smith, Mark Trumbo, Joey Rickard, and later, Austin Hays, all of whom rotated through right field.
Jones had his typically solid season in center field, batting .285 with a .787 OPS and 26 home runs while playing 147 games, though for a second straight year his defensive metrics were unkind. Mancini was a revelation, batting .293 with an .826 OPS and 24 home runs while playing a serviceable left field in his first season there.
Smith had an up-and-down season in which he got on base plenty, but he's on his way to free agency. And while Trumbo hit .331 with an .876 OPS and five home runs in 31 games in right field compared with .207 and a .635 OPS in 111 games as the designated hitter, his defense is such that manager Buck Showalter found it hard to justify playing him in the field too often.
Rickard and Craig Gentry had strong defensive seasons as reserves, though neither was very impactful at the plate.
Any conversation about the Orioles' future starts with Hays, a 2016 third-round draft pick who began this past season at High-A Frederick and ended it in the majors. He hit .329 with a .958 OPS and 32 home runs between Frederick and Double-A Bowie this year and will have an inside track toward the starting right field job in 2018. He projects to be an above-average defender there, and can also spell Jones in center field.
Rule 5 draft pick Anthony Santander, a switch-hitting slugger, will also be in the right field mix for 2018, considering he needs to spend the first six weeks of the major league season on the active roster before the club can option him to the minors for more seasoning. He hit .267 in 13 games with the Orioles late in the season, and the club still considers him a future impact bat, at the very least.
At one point, those two were rotating through the same outfield at Bowie with the team's other two top outfield prospects, Cedric Mullins and DJ Stewart. Mullins had a torrid start to the season after a breakout spring training before hamstring injuries led him to two separate trips to the disabled list, and he ended the year batting .265 with a .778 OPS and 33 extra-base hits in 76 games. While he can play center field, his arm is a bit light for the position, making him a future left fielder. Whether the switch-hitting Mullins can continue to improve his right-handed swing will determine what his major league role is, but it seems likely he’ll play in the majors in 2018.
Stewart, the 2015 first-round pick, bounced back from a disastrous first full season to hit .278 with an .859 OPS and 20 stolen bases to go along with his 21 home runs. Stewart adjusted his swing to get out of a crouch and add more loft, which helped him have a power breakout. Rival evaluators are still skeptical of him, but the Orioles feel there were real strides made in 2017. He'll have to make his impact with his bat at the major league level because he's a left field-only prospect defensively at this point.
That quartet represents most of the Orioles' position player prospect strength, though the possible move of third baseman Ryan Mountcastle to left field and the presence of Mancini could create a logjam of major league-caliber bats without a position in the near future.
Below them, the amount of impact talent is far more spread out. Randolph Gassaway burst onto the scene in 2016 after several years in the complex leagues to become a Carolina League All-Star, but tapered off down the stretch. His teammate in Frederick, Ademar Rifaela, was the Carolina League Most Valuable Player while batting .284 with an .858 OPS and 24 home runs. He's likely a corner outfielder going forward and at times sold out for power, but his production at that level makes him an intriguing wild card at age 22.
Below them, 2016 draftees Jake Ring and Cole Billingsley had good first full seasons at Low-A Delmarva, while Ryan McKenna, a toolsy fourth-round pick in 2015, hit .256 there with 42 extra-base hits.
Among 2017 draftees, fifth-round outfielder Lamar Sparks is one of the more intriguing picks of this year's crop. He's got the makings of an above-average center fielder physically, but the club will need to be patient with his bat.
Mancini is likely entrenched in left field thanks to Chris Davis' long-term occupancy of first base, but Jones is entering the last year of his current contract. Keeping him around and making him an Oriole for the rest of his career would likely involve moving him away from center field at some point, though it's unclear if there's a path toward that presently. Mullins and Hays could play the position occasionally in 2018, though neither at a level to displace Jones.
Otherwise, it seems the Orioles are set at the corners with Mancini and the quartet that was at Bowie in August. There's no true heir to Jones on the horizon, but there are plenty of capable bats that could fit into platoons or as everyday players at the corners. Showalter will be glad to know some of them are good defenders, too.