Delays for Santander and Smith could mean starts for Stewart

Rio Ruiz’s fly ball was slicing toward the left field line. DJ Stewart was racing to it.

Could have been a double, could have been an out with flair.

Could have been an injury to Stewart, who made a sensational diving catch and really felt it.

Stewart-Running-Orange-sidebar.jpgStewart rose to his feet and bent forward for a couple of seconds. He straightened, reached for his right ribcage and motioned to center fielder Andrew Velazquez that he was fine.

The first intrasquad game featuring crowd noise piped into the ballpark and music played between innings went silent again until Stewart got back on his feet and finished the inning.

The Orioles are counting on Stewart staying healthy and perhaps starting for them on opening day, an unlikely scenario back in March as he was recovering from ankle surgery five months earlier. The injured list beckoned. The outfield appeared to be set.

Austin Hays in center, flanked by Anthony Santander and Trey Mancini. Dwight Smith Jr. available in left. At least one super-utility player capable of backing up.

Put that plan in the shredder and keep Stewart off the IL.

Mancini won’t play this year after a diagnosis of Stage 3 colon cancer that led to surgery and chemotherapy treatments. Santander didn’t begin workouts until this week after testing positive for COVID-19, but an encouraging live batting practice session yesterday makes him a possibility. Smith reported to camp yesterday, with the assumption that he also tested positive, and might not be able to get ready in one week.

Stewart was lost twice during the 2019 season, due to the ankle injury and a concussion. He has little to prove at Triple-A and it’s a moot point with the minor league season canceled. He has 60 games to become established and live up to his status as a first-round draft pick.

He has to stay on the field to do it. He came off it Thursday night only after the last out.

“DJ Stewart is playing really well, taking really good at-bats, really making defense a priority also,” said manager Brandon Hyde. “Working his butt off with (outfield instructor) Anthony Sanders in the outfield individually on a daily basis, so I like the improvement he’s making there. That’s going to continue.

“Made a couple swing adjustments. Really staying behind the ball nicely right now and driving the ball to all fields. Like DJ does, he plays 100 miles an hour and the adjustments he’s making offensively, there’s some improvement there and he’s taking some really good at-bats in these intrasquads.”

Stewart walked twice against Wade LeBlanc in Thursday’s game before the press box closed to the media. He batted first last night for the home team and went 0-for-3 before we had to leave, but he also broke back on Ruiz’s liner and made a nice grab in the opening inning.

Outfield coverage on July 24 should be provided by Stewart, Hays, perhaps Santander, utility players Velazquez, Pat Valaika and Stevie Wilkerson, and maybe Cedric Mullins or Mason Williams.

What’s one more competition?

Mullins and Williams weren’t in the original player pool of 44. The Orioles want a fourth natural outfielder, with the assumption that Smith has run out of time.’s Steve Melewski predicted yesterday that Mullins would win the job. The Baltimore Sun’s Nathan Ruiz picked Williams.

I’m not ready to break the tie.

Mullins can lead off if he’s solved the plate issues that forced his demotion last season, and he’s swiped a couple bases in intrasquad games. He’s on the 40-man roster. Maybe he’s got the edge. But Hyde hasn’t made a decision.

Yasiel Puig tested positive for COVID-19 and no longer has a major league deal with the Braves. The Orioles reportedly made him an offer earlier, but would they try again with Santander now a possibility for opening day and Smith not too far behind him?

Puig won’t be ready for a while, and that’s after a two-week quarantine.

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