How the rotation and bullpen are finalized before opening day garners much of the media attention in spring training. However, there’s also a competition brewing in center field.
Can’t miss it.
Manager Brandon Hyde doesn’t know on this date whether Austin Hays and Cedric Mullins are vying for the bulk of the playing time or headed toward shared duties. Whether there’s going to be one definitive starter or a platoon arrangement.
Hays has been viewed as the eventual center fielder and leadoff hitter pretty much from the day he was chosen in the third round of the 2016 draft out of Jacksonville University. Shortly after the Orioles got a glimpse of his tool set and were able to project.
Injuries kept stalling Hays and those plans, the most recent a non-displaced rib fracture last summer after Marlins rookie Jorge Guzman drilled him on the left side with a 96 mph fastball on Aug. 6. Hays tried to play through it, the most recent example of his toughness and his rotten luck.
Mullins, meanwhile, was sent to the alternate camp site after going 1-for-13 and returned a different hitter, the kind who takes advantage of his speed. He slashed .286/.352/.367 in 19 August games and posted the same average with a .775 OPS in 24 September games.
His defense was so good in center, manager Brandon Hyde endorsed him for a Gold Glove.
Mullins was optioned in 2019 after going 6-for-64 and losing the center field job. Perhaps he’s better equipped to avoid another sluggish start in 2021.
“I think we’re going to give both guys a ton of playing time and a lot of at-bats this spring and then we’ll make a decision and see how things kind of shake out toward the end of camp. But right now I just want both guys to get ready to play,” Hyde said yesterday in his Zoom conference call.
“They’re both going to see a lot of center field time during spring training. I’ll move Austin around a little bit also. They’ll share it for a little while and we’ll go from there.”
The Orioles could do a lot worse defensively than having Mullins in center and Hays in left, with Ryan Mountcastle at first base or serving as designated hitter. And we can’t forget that Anthony Santander was a Gold Glove finalist in right - because I’ve mentioned it at least a dozen times.
* Matt Harvey impressed Hyde with his first bullpen session Sunday afternoon.
“He’s in really good shape, his delivery’s really athletic,” Hyde said.
“I thought the ball was coming out of his hand extremely well for his first bullpen and it was obvious that he’s put a lot of work in this offseason. So I thought it went very, very smooth and I think he was happy with it.”
Our first reference this spring to the ball coming out of someone’s hand.
* Speaking of camp traditions, there’s also pressing the manager for his exhibition starters, even after only one full-squad workout.
“I think we’re still mapping that out,” Hyde said, reluctant to look ahead to Feb. 28. “We’re down to a few candidates to start the first couple games, but something we’re going to kind of sort out these next couple days through these live BPs.
“We’ve got six days before the first game. Everybody’s going to throw two live BPs, and then we’ll make a call from there. Not ready to announce our spring training starter yet. Probably in the next couple days.”
How often is the first guy also the opening day starter? Or on the opening day roster?
Yefry Ramirez started the initial exhibition game in 2019, one year after Mike Wright got the assignment. Chandler Shepherd had the honor last spring in North Port, where the Braves sent Félix Hernández to the mound.
Shepherd, who allowed three runs in the first inning, never made it out of the alternate camp site and is no longer in the organization. Hernández opted out and signed a minor league deal with the Orioles.
* Trey Mancini would love to be in the lineup for the Feb. 28 game against the Pirates at Ed Smith Stadium. Doesn’t matter where. First base, right field, designated hitter. Just let him play.
And don’t call it a comeback.
Mancini will feel like he’s all the way back on opening day, not in the Grapefruit League. Meanwhile, Hyde focuses on the big health picture.
“I just think him handling and the way he has gone about everything since he got the news in March of last year, it’s bigger than the game,” Hyde said. “His life and his health is the most important thing, and him staying healthy and him battling this the way he did, for me that’s bigger than anything. For me that’s complete.”
One of the biggest disappointments with the lack of media access to the clubhouse and workouts in 2021 is losing the ability to watch teammates greet Mancini upon his return.
“I can’t remember a bigger hug that I gave somebody than seeing him for the first time the other day,” said third baseman Rio Ruiz. “You commend everything that he’s done. You can’t even imagine what he’s been through. But he’s back here, he hasn’t made any complaints, he hasn’t made any excuses. He’s just excited to be back on the ball field.
“He’s definitely a presence that we’ve missed throughout the clubhouse.”
* Hyde addressed the team prior to the first workout.
Has the messaged changed from Hyde’s first spring training?
“I think a lot of these guys, this is their third camp with me and a lot of the guys on our coaching staff, and I think it becomes a little easier when you know more players and they know you and they know the structure of the spring and communication level,” he said.
“I think it’s gone really, really smoothly. I think that our guys are totally bought in, and to have a familiarity with players definitely makes it easier from a communication standpoint. And I think it’s vice-versa.”