With the Orioles kicking off spring training next week in Sarasota, Florida, an uneventful offseason for the rebuilding club will at least begin to be about baseball again.
Their rebuilding project, which yielded 108 losses and a handful of memorable moments in 2019, continues with what’s expected to be a similar 2020 season. But as they wait for the fruits of their focus on player development to make it to the majors, there are plenty of opportunities to impress for the players in big league camp.
Each day this week, we’ll break down a position group that will get a chance to prove itself to executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias, manager Brandon Hyde and the rest of the front office and coaching staff when spring training begins, with the first workout for pitchers and catchers next Wednesday.
Next up is the outfield, the current home of the Orioles’ best player and full of on-the-cusp young players who could bridge the team to their next era of competitiveness.
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Who’s in camp?
No position is as packed with young and interesting talent on the Orioles’ roster as the outfield. The group is led by Trey Mancini, who spent most of last year in right field to accommodate Dwight Smith Jr. but also has left field experience in his repertoire. Smith, Anthony Santander and Mancini are the three players with the most outfield time who will be back in camp, though it’s possible the top player in that category — utility man Stevie Wilkerson — can clear waivers and remain in the organization after being designated for assignment last week.
Joining them on the 40-man roster are three homegrown options with varying amounts of major league experience and success — Austin Hays, Cedric Mullins, and DJ Stewart. Mullins was the Opening Day center fielder but was out of the majors in three weeks and never returned, and Hays was the primary center fielder in September and had the kind of performance that puts him in a good spot to reprise that role on Opening Day. Stewart will get a late start in camp after offseason ankle surgery.
Ryan McKenna, an outfield prospect who spent last year at Double-A Bowie, will make his return to major league camp as a rostered player after being invited last spring, while former top prospect Yusniel Diaz will be back as a nonroster invitee for the second year in a row. Mason Williams will complete the group and, at age 28, represents the elder statesman of the young cast of outfielders.
There was quite a bit of outfield churn for the Orioles last year, with Drew Jackson spending the first week of the regular season with the team after making the roster as a Rule 5 draft pick but being jettisoned for the desperation signing of starting pitcher Dan Straily. Joey Rickard and Keon Broxton each had cameos in regular roles, but Wilkerson’s emergence as a center field option meant both were taken off the roster and found new homes.
If Wilkerson ends up clearing waivers, he could stay in the organization and be in camp again, though he could also elect free agency since it’s his second time being taken off the roster.
[ Orioles projected Opening Day roster 2020 ]
Who’s making the team?
Mancini is about the only one whose name should be written in pen on the Opening Day roster, and there are plenty of different paths for the Orioles to take to decide who joins him. Hays, who debuted in September 2017 after an unprecedented full-season debut on the farm, has had two springs in which he’s either entered with or made legitimate claims to being on the team, but it hasn’t happened. A good camp could make him the primary center fielder.
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As for the other corner spot, Santander and Smith each had stretches in 2019 where they reasonably made claims to keep a regular job in 2020. For Smith, it was early in the season; he had an .800 OPS on May 17 but it dipped to .706 by the end of September. In Santander’s first 81 games, he hit .288 with an .841 OPS and 18 home runs before he wore down and went 5-for-54 in his last dozen games.
As a switch hitter who has developed into a much better defender than the Orioles expected when he was a Rule 5 pick, Santander probably has the edge for a primary outfield job with a good spring. Both he and Smith have a minor league option, but at this point, they could combine with Hays and Mancini as the four-man outfield unit with two extra infielders on the bench.
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Who could change that?
If Mullins goes on one of his hot streaks, which he’s liable to do, he could force his way into the Opening Day roster situation. It’s more likely, however, that the Orioles will give him more time on a smaller stage to continue the work he’s done this offseason on his swing. McKenna and Diaz both have put in a ton of Double-A time and need to check Triple-A off their development, while Stewart’s injury won’t make him a viable roster candidate unless he goes way ahead of schedule.
The outfield seems like a place, much like any other on the roster, where the Orioles could bring in a veteran or two, a la Eric Young Jr. last spring, to compete for a spot and provide some depth. Smith himself was a spring training waiver claim at exactly the point in his career in which the Orioles should be grabbing players: some major league experience, a good minor league track record and youth on his side. Another in his vein would change the complexion of this group plenty.
Who’s the future?
There’s no spot on the Orioles’ roster where the future and present overlap as much as the outfield. Elias inherited plenty of outfield depth in the upper levels of the farm system in the form of Hays, Stewart, Mullins and Santander.
With Diaz and McKenna now at the final stage of their minor league development as well, it’s going to be fascinating to watch which of these players can truly solidify themselves as a regular major leaguer first. It won’t necessarily be a race, but it’s certainly not going to be fun for the fourth person in that group to try and unseat players who have already proven they can do what you want to do.
Below them, there’s a bit of a gap before getting to the 2019 draftees. The Orioles took three college outfielders — Kyle Stowers, Zach Watson and Johnny Rizer — in the top 10 rounds. They could move quickly, given their pedigrees as productive and polished college bats.