Taking a closer look at minicamp outfielders

The three-day minicamp at the Ed Smith Stadium complex has reached its halfway point this morning. Five outfielders working with three instructors in Sarasota temperatures reaching the low 70s.

The high fives will be kept to a minimum for social distancing purposes.

The outfielders are in varying stages of their careers. Three of them have reached the majors. One remains a rookie in 2021 who is playing his fourth position. One is a former first-round draft pick. One is an infielder who converted to a super-utility role.

There also are two prospects, one coming via trade and the other homegrown, who are hoping to debut later in the summer after their Triple-A assignments.

Here’s a little more:

Ryan Mountcastle

He was a shortstop who moved to third base who moved to first base who moved to left field - with some thought given to experimenting in right. It makes sense, especially with Mountcastle already in Florida, to get him more reps before spring training.

Mountcastle lived up to his lofty prospect status after arriving in the majors on Aug. 21, late enough to remain a rookie this year. He hit, hit for power, drew walks, ran much better than advertised and didn’t appear overmatched in left. The real deal.

Mountcastle-Draws-Walk-Black-Sidebar.jpgI was told after Mountcastle moved to the outfield in Triple-A that his arm “played” better in left than the infield. The organization was satisfied and didn’t get stuck having to make him a designated hitter at such a young age.

Mountcastle is expected to start in left on opening day and be used as a backup at first base during the season. In the meantime, first base coach and outfield instructor Anthony Sanders is able to do some early tutoring at minicamp.

DJ Stewart

He doesn’t need an introduction to the outfield. It’s his natural position. But the Orioles are trying to smooth out the rough spots.

They made Stewart the 25th overall pick in the 2015 draft out of Florida State University, primarily because they desperately wanted an outfield prospect and advanced hitter. But they also needed to work on his stance at the lower levels of the system, getting him comfortable coming out of a pronounced crouch.

Stewart adapted and the club likes his ability to get on base - as evidenced by his .358 OBP in the minors and .355 OBP last season in 112 plate appearances. He hit seven home runs in a span of nine games in September upon returning from the alternate camp site, a few of them majestic shots, but cooled down the stretch and slashed .193/.355/.455 in 31 games.

The minicamp obviously is more about Stewart’s defense, which he knows leaves room for improvement in both corners. Getting better jumps and reads. Doing a better job of securing the ball. Becoming more trustworthy on a club that isn’t lacking in alternatives.

If the season began today, Stewart probably would be squeezed out of the lineup unless used as the designated hitter. Mountcastle should be in left and Anthony Santander in right. But the primary goal is making the club and forcing it to find playing time for him.

Yusniel Diaz

His much-anticipated debut should be right around the corner. He just needs to be healthy and for baseball to provide a minor league season that enables him to get at-bats in Triple-A.

The 2020 plan was scraped, with Diaz stuck at the alternate camp site. He did impress, so it wasn’t wasted time, but the cancellation ruined his chances of coming to Baltimore.

The Orioles view Diaz as capable of playing all three outfield spots. They need to get more looks, which brought him from Miami to the minicamp.

Diaz was considered the jewel of the Manny Machado trade with the Dodgers. Pitcher Dean Kremer, also included in the package, beat him to the majors. But Diaz offered tools that were lacking in the system. He’s intrigued from the moment that he slipped on a Double-A Bowie Baysox uniform.

The hearts of many fans begin to race while thinking about an alignment of Mountcastle in left, Austin Hays in center and Diaz in right. Then they remember Santander, the Most Valuable Oriole and a Gold Glove finalist in right, and need to breathe into a paper bag.

Ryan McKenna

The fourth member of the 40-man roster tends to get overlooked because of the hype surrounding players like Mountcastle and Diaz, but the Orioles love the speed and defense that he offers. And the new regime is aware of his tremendous numbers at Single-A Frederick in 2018 and in the Arizona Fall League.

McKenna hasn’t been as productive at Double-A, but he’s still highly regarded and on the radar.

Of the five players at minicamp, McKenna easily is the most accomplished defensively. But he didn’t just bring a glove on his trip from Texas. He can work on his hitting with Sanders and coaches Matt Packer and Anthony Villa.

McKenna is primarily a center fielder, but he’s also played left and right. The minicamp also could aid the Orioles in grading his work in the corners.

If Hays remains healthy and in center, McKenna eventually could find himself competing with Cedric Mullins as a fourth outfielder backing up at all three spots. Both of them enticing the Orioles with their speed and ability to run down balls in the gaps.

Stevie Wilkerson

Don’t sleep on this guy. The Orioles didn’t re-sign him to a minor league deal simply because they love his personality and appearances out of the bullpen.

I’ve heard Wilkerson described as a “40-man type” even though he’s going to be a non-roster invite to spring training. He’ll vie for a utility job and his ability to play the outfield is a big asset.

That’s not to suggest that he’s a finished product.

Baseball-Reference.com lists Wilkerson as a center fielder, second baseman and third baseman, but the order is misleading. Drafted in the eighth round in 2014 out of Clemson University, he didn’t play the outfield until three years later in the minors and five in the majors. He had five starts in right at Frederick and two at Bowie.

This is around the time that the Orioles decided to begin easing Wilkerson into a utility role to improve his chances of reaching the majors. They even suggested that he grab some catching gear and get comfortable behind the plate for emergencies. But he’s an infielder who made 58 starts in center field in 2019 out of necessity.

That position is covered now.

Wilkerson always can use more work in the outfield and he bought a house in Sarasota. The minicamp seemed like a no-brainer for him.

Note: Former Orioles catcher Bryan Holaday signed a minor league deal with the Diamondbacks.

Holaday was 5-for-31 in 20 games after the Orioles purchased his contract to prevent him from exercising his escape clause. They used him behind the plate, at first base and for one emergency relief appearance.

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