In outrighting catcher Austin Wynns to Triple-A Norfolk on Monday, the Orioles removed yet another holdover from the previous regime from their 40-man roster. Those ranks are shrinking by the day.
Just five pitchers remain on the 40-man roster from when the front office turned over in the fall of 2018 — Alex Cobb, John Means, Hunter Harvey, Tanner Scott and Paul Fry. On the position player side now that Wynns has been removed, it’s Chance Sisco, Chris Davis, Trey Mancini, Anthony Santander, Austin Hays, DJ Stewart and Cedric Mullins who remain.
There’s been plenty of roster churn for the Orioles as they try to field a major league team while focusing most of their attention on the minor leagues, but that five of the 12 holdovers are outfielders despite there being little clarity about the future at those three positions says plenty about how the last two years have gone with that position group.
At last year’s winter meetings, it was fair to assume things were settled there. Austin Hays had come up and taken charge in center field in September and looked a shoo-in to reprise that role in 2020 and beyond. Trey Mancini was the team’s best player after moving to right field to accommodate Dwight Smith Jr., and Anthony Santander showed signs of being the slugger he grew into this year.
Yet at those meetings, manager Brandon Hyde was loath to forecast it as a settled group. Mullins crumbling to begin 2019 showed the risk in counting on a rookie for such a role, and he knew Stewart would be healthy before the end of spring training after ankle surgery.
There was also the notion that prospect Ryan Mountcastle could be in the majors and manning left field before long. So, it’s hard to blame Hyde for not settling on anything concrete in December — especially considering how things turned out.
Mancini didn’t play at all after a spring training diagnosis of colon cancer. Santander and Smith missed all of summer camp after reporting with COVID-19, and neither ended the season with the team. Smith was outrighted when Mountcastle came up at the end of August, and Santander missed the last month with an oblique injury — though he was voted Most Valuable Oriole anyway.
In center field, Hays got off to a slow start then broke a rib, allowing Mullins to come up and show meaningful progress at the plate. Both Mullins and Stewart were offensive examples of the success the organization’s new player development staff had at the secondary site at Double-A Bowie.
And Mountcastle, of course, hit exactly the way he was expected to while holding his own in the outfield.
At some point in the past two seasons, every outfielder on the roster has shown himself worthy of consideration to be part of this team when the rebuilding phase is over. That goes a long way to explain how the group has remained largely unchanged on the 40-man roster since Mike Elias took over in November 2018.
Having so many players coming into their own at the big league level can never hurt, but the coming season will be pivotal to determining who sticks around. Those decisions might need to be made sooner rather than later, too. Mancini will be an everyday player upon his return, though it stands to reason he could play at first base often with Davis on the bench and no Renato Núñez to get into the lineup.
Santander and Mountcastle will likely be everyday players in some capacity, with Mullins and Hays battling for center field time and Stewart trying to break through somewhere. Add potential debutants Yusniel Díaz and Ryan McKenna to the mix, and there are going to be plenty of outfield combinations for Hyde to try in spring training and beyond.
Elias has often said that keeping the roster young and sustaining itself with new players is a goal of teams in the Orioles’ position, so he’ll surely be aware that Mancini and Santander will be their second- and third-most expensive players behind Davis. He’ll also be aware that Hays and Stewart only have one minor league option left, and depending on how MLB is counting the time spent optioned to the minors during the coronavirus shutdown, Mullins could be in that camp as well.
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All that could accelerate the Orioles’ urge to decide who will get the longest looks in 2021 and who will stick around beyond that. And even though winter meetings aren’t being held in hotel suites this year, that’s sure to be a topic the club will try and address this week.