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Patience with top prospects in spring training is an Orioles staple. The results show it’s worth it. | ANALYSIS

As Orioles manager Brandon Hyde surveys his outfield options this spring in Sarasota, Florida, he won’t exactly be looking at anyone new.

Everyone in the team’s outfield mix — and there are no bad candidates in a group featuring Anthony Santander, Ryan Mountcastle, Austin Hays, Cedric Mullins and DJ Stewart — has had some major league success, and that came after the Orioles’ front office made them spend more time in the minors than they might have liked.

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In 2019, Stewart was one of the first cuts from big league camp, while Hays and Santander lit up spring training but were sent to minor league camp anyway to play at Triple-A Norfolk.

In 2020, Mullins was meant to start the year in the minors before major league rosters were expanded for the shortened 62-game season. Mountcastle was never going to make the team out of spring training despite being the reigning International League Most Valuable Player at Norfolk.

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Each had developmental goals they needed to hit, but the Orioles also had incentives to keep them in the minors for the purposes of club control and future costs through salary arbitration.

Whatever the motivation, the results are hard to argue with — a trio of slugging corner outfielders in Mountcastle, Santander and Stewart, and potential center fielders who can impact the game with their bat and legs in Mullins and Hays. All are liable to make the major league team this year, and as a group are some of the Orioles’ most promising long-term big leaguers currently on the roster.

The Orioles’ success with their patient approach means young prospects knocking on the major league door in Jahmai Jones, Yusniel Diaz and Ryan McKenna will likely be subject to the same plan.

The first spring under executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias and Hyde in 2019 was the beginning of a full-throated sale of the team’s future talents, and to many that meant highlighting the young players already on their roster. Hays rocketed to the majors in his first full season in 2017 but dealt with injuries the year before, and Santander likewise debuted in 2017 as a Rule 5 draft pick but spent most of 2018 dealing with injuries in the minors.

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Stewart was one of several prospects to debut in the majors late that season, as was Mullins, who took over center field for star Adam Jones that August.

But only Mullins made the team out of camp in 2019, despite Hays and Santander slugging through their time in big league camp.

“We’re doing the right thing for these guys’ careers,” Elias said at the time. “They’re going to be a big part of what we’re doing here, what we’re trying to do, and in no way do we want to jeopardize any part of their development just to have a pure tryout based on spring training at-bats.”

The developmental needs proved legitimate, even if it meant the Orioles’ major league outfield was often lacking. None had any meaningful time in Triple-A at that point, and Hays in particular was sent there to play center field every day, a position he didn’t get much experience at since Mullins was often on the same team.

Santander hit his way to the big leagues quickly and was up by midseason; he’s hit 31 home runs with an .807 OPS in 130 big league games since.

Hays, meanwhile, got center field experience that helped him when he returned to the big leagues in September 2019 and makes him that much more attractive in 2021 and beyond. His strength in center field is a recently developed asset.

“I think I’m an everyday outfielder in the big leagues, whether that’s at center field, left field, right field,” Hays said.

Stewart was sent down earlier in camp than those two, but was back in the big leagues first thanks to a torrid May in which he hit five home runs with a 1.408 OPS. An ankle injury a week after he was called up meant Santander took his spot.

But those fates were reversed in 2020 when Santander’s oblique injury in September cleared a bigger role for Stewart, who hit all seven of his home runs with a .907 OPS in the last month of the season.

Now, both have claims to everyday at-bats in the Orioles lineup, be it in a corner outfield spot or as designated hitter.

Stewart wasn’t the only one who came back from the team’s alternate training site in Bowie rejuvenated by the work there with the minor league hitting staff. Mullins, whose disastrous start to 2019 precipitated a drop all the way back to Double-A Bowie by the end of that year, was on the team to begin 2020 but struggled and was sent to the minor league site.

A broken rib for Hays meant more playing time for Mullins, who hit .291 with what Hyde believed was Gold Glove caliber defense in center field.

Mountcastle is probably the most significant example of this patience, warranted or not. He hit .312 with an .871 OPS and 25 home runs at age-22 at Norfolk in 2019 and was named the Orioles’ Brooks Robinson Minor League Player of the Year, but it was a foregone conclusion that he wouldn’t break camp with the team no matter when the season started.

The team was steadfast that a further acclimation period in left field, a position he started playing halfway through 2019, and an improvement of his plate discipline were required.

By mid-August, about a month into the season, he was deemed ready and came up to hit five home runs with an .878 OPS in an impressive major league debut.

The timing, however, doesn’t seem to be coincidental. With major league service time prorated to represent what it would be in a full season, Mountcastle accrued 105 days in 2020 — well below the threshold for reaching salary arbitration and the raises that come with it before he would normally be eligible. Players typically need three years of service time to reach that benchmark, but the top 22% of players with more than two years experience but fewer than three are given “super two” eligibility for arbitration, giving them an extra year of higher salaries before free agency.

That cutoff is usually between 120 and 130 days of service time, but dipped to 115 days in 2019. Mountcastle won’t be in jeopardy of hitting that where he is now.

There are only two other Orioles prospects who returned to the minors at a point in which they could have been considered ready, meaning they fell short of an important service-time cutoff. Santander’s 2019 call-up came after he would have accrued a full season of service time based on what he’d already compiled, while catcher Chance Sisco’s return to the minors in 2019 meant he was below the “super two” cutoff.

Recent comments about service time manipulation with top prospect Jarred Kelenic from former Seattle Mariners CEO Kevin Mather cost him his job, as he essentially admitted they’d keep Kelenic in the minors to begin the season to gain another year of club control.

Because Kelenic only has a month of Double-A experience, the Mariners could have relied on baseball reasons as an excuse if they wanted to.

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That’s why the lack of Triple-A time for Jones, who debuted with the Angels last summer, and Diaz and McKenna mean the Orioles likely won’t bring them up to the majors until the 2021 season is well underway. The delays in having Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer join the big league rotation in 2020 means similar delays are likely for Michael Baumann, Zac Lowther, and Alexander Wells.

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Hyde said that even with Yolmer Sánchez projected as the starting second baseman, Jones has a chance to impress and break camp with the team. More likely, his lack of Triple-A time and the chance to further develop at a new position in second base will mean the Orioles wait a while to give him his debut in their colors.

Now, they’ll do so with the recent success of their entire outfield on their side.

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