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The Orioles are reportedly interested in Yasiel Puig again. Would signing him make sense?

As the 2020 season neared its end, Orioles manager Brandon Hyde repeatedly said sorting out playing time for the team’s large collection of young outfielders was a good problem to have, one in which too much talent couldn’t be an issue.

The Orioles might be putting that to the test. They are among the clubs interested in signing outfielder Yasiel Puig, according to a report from MLB.com. Puig, who turns 30 in December, reportedly received a contract offer from the Orioles in July before eventually coming to an agreement with the Atlanta Braves, only to test positive for COVID-19 and miss the 2020 season.

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“We look at all the free agents, especially in a situation like this,” Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said in August. “We monitor what’s going on out there. That’s really all I can say, but we’ll continue to do that.”

At the time, the interest in some ways made sense. In a shortened season, a surprise team contending was a possibility, as the Orioles displayed with their 12-8 start and by staying in playoff contention until the season’s final weeks. Trey Mancini, the Orioles’ primary right fielder in 2019, was out for the season recovering from colon cancer. Anthony Santander and Dwight Smith Jr., two potential starters in the outfield, both missed time in training camp after testing positive for the coronavirus, with members of the coaching staff playing the outfield during intrasquad games. Ryan Mountcastle was bound for the Bowie alternate site to continue his development.

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Puig, meanwhile, was a free agent coming off a 2019 season in which he posted a .785 OPS with 24 home runs in 149 games between the Cincinnati Reds and Cleveland Indians. He would’ve been an offensive upgrade in practically all cases.

But after adding Yusniel Diaz on Friday, the Orioles’ 40-man roster included eight quality outfielders, with Mancini, at 28, being the only member of the group older than 26. Santander was the 2020 Most Valuable Oriole, earning that distinction despite an oblique injury ending his season early. Mountcastle took his place as the Orioles’ top offensive performer, showing improved plate discipline and holding his own in the outfield. Austin Hays, Cedric Mullins and DJ Stewart had their ups and downs, but each had stretches that showed their potential. Diaz and McKenna spent 2020 at the alternate site, a return to Bowie after sharing the Double-A Baysox’s outfield in 2019.

The Orioles added another piece Wednesday, claiming Chris Shaw on waivers from the San Francisco Giants. Shaw, 27, is a left fielder and first baseman with a .520 career slugging percentage in the minor leagues, having hit at least 20 home runs each year from 2016 to 2019, but he has struggled in two stints in the majors. Right-hander Thomas Eshelman was designated for assignment as the corresponding move.

“Our outfield, I want to say we will have six to eight outfielders on our 40-man roster that are high quality, that are interesting young guys, players with options,” Elias said last month. “I feel like that group’s pretty fleshed out and something that we want to see in action next year.”

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Adding Puig would, in theory, go against that. Given his one-year absence, it’s doubtful that he would be getting a deal that goes beyond 2021, allowing him to possibly rebuild his value before reentering free agency. The Orioles have already made one move indicating how they might be willing to spend this offseason: designating for assignment Renato Núñez, their home run leader over the past two years, rather than paying him a raise through arbitration. Núñez cleared waivers and entered free agency Wednesday.

With the Orioles’ turn toward competitiveness likely another year or more away, a short agreement with Puig wouldn’t make sense for the organization’s long-term plan, taking playing time away from young outfielders who could be around on Baltimore’s next contender. Even if Mancini and Mountcastle instead cover first base and designated hitter between them, that leaves six players for the Orioles’ three outfield spots, plus reserves. Beyond perhaps Santander, Puig’s career output would be an upgrade on each of those players.

But it benefits the Orioles to give those outfielders a run in something closer to a full season, to see whether Stewart is the player who hit seven home runs in a nine-game span or the one who went 4-for-55 beyond that stretch, whether Hays is closer to what they saw before a broken rib put him on the injured list (.203/.273/.246) or after (.377/.404/.585), whether Mullins has truly moved past the skid that got him demoted from the majors and Triple-A in 2019, and whether Diaz can live up to the promise of being the centerpiece of the Manny Machado trade.

Signing Puig would be the biggest addition of Elias’ tenure, adding a fun, talented player to Baltimore’s roster. It also might detract from the Orioles’ overall goals.

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