When spring training for the 2021 season begins, the Orioles could be looking at a logjam. It presents a bit of a problem, but yes, it is a good problem to deal with.
They may have too many quality outfielders for too few spots, especially if you add in players yet to make it to Baltimore. This is not a surprise to us, as it’s been coming for a while. And this problem, if we do even call it that, could sort itself out as many baseball roster crunches do. There could be injuries, players sent out to the minors after not performing. And there could be trades. Things have a way of working out.
But first, let’s start with a look at the outfield depth.
We could see a starting outfield of Ryan Mountcastle in left, Austin Hays in center and Anthony Santander in right on opening day 2021. Based on the current roster, that would be my starting three. That then does not include - at least as outfield starters for now - Cedric Mullins, DJ Stewart and Trey Mancini, who is expected to return next year. Mancini could start at first base, as could anyone else of course. There is also the designated hitter position, manned most of the last two years by Renato Núñez.
The Orioles list six outfielders on their 40-man roster, which does not include Mountcastle, who is listed as an infielder. They are Hays, Santander, Mullins, Stewart, Mancini and Ryan McKenna, who was added last November.
They also have outfielder Yusniel Diaz, the centerpiece of the Manny Machado trade, who has yet to make his major league debut but is very close. Further back, they have this year’s top draft pick, University of Arkansas outfielder Heston Kjerstad.
In addition to that, the O’s selected three other outfielders with high picks among Mike Elias’ first two drafts. In 2019 they picked Kyle Stowers at No. 71 overall and Zach Watson at No. 79. This year they added Hudson Haskin at No. 39 overall.
Meanwhile, Mullins did himself a lot of good this season. He hit .271/.315/.407. He led the club in Wins Above Replacement (WAR) at 1.4, according to STATS. Yes, this is surprising. His nine bunt hits led the majors, and he played good defense and the defensive metrics liked him. Some might even put him as the starter in center over Hays, who is going to need to prove he can stay on the field.
Maybe Mullins is the so-called fourth outfielder, one that can start at any spot and sub for anyone out there. He sure brings speed and defense, but teams did at times take advantage of his lack of a strong arm. But give the guy that ended 2019 at Double-A Bowie plenty of credit for getting himself back on the radar.
Stewart had a crazy season. He led the club with 20 walks and always has had a good eye. At one point in early September he homered in three straight at-bats and in four consecutive games. He batted .193 but had an OPS of .809, and yes, that is nuts. His career OPS is .768 in 301 plate appearances.
But when he slumped, it looked pretty bad. He started his year going 0-for-15 with nine strikeouts. But he had seven walks and an OBP of .318 without getting a hit. In his final 12 games he went 4-for-39 (.103) with 16 strikeouts. But even then his OBP was .271 with four hits in 12 games.
Talk about streaky. I’m not sure what to make of it, but I would have Stewart behind Mullins at this point, and he would have to prove to me he can develop some level of consistency. Drawing walks is nice but you gotta throw some hits in there too. The guy did go on a homer tear with seven in a nine-game stretch. But there were also defensive issues. I’m probably more confused than ever on his potential. It’s there somewhere, but what kind of player is this guy, truly?
Hays was healthy again at the end of the year. He produced seven multi-hit games and hit .377 (20-for-53) with three home runs and 12 runs scored in 14 September games. That raised his batting average from .203 to .279 after he came off the injured list. You could consider him injury-prone but I have a hard time doing that with his 2020 injury, which came from getting drilled by a pitch in the rib cage. There wasn’t much he could do about that.
Chris Davis was not much of a factor for the Orioles last year. Will he be next year? It’s pretty much reached the point where there is no role for Davis. We’ll see what the future will hold in that regard.
Elias does continue to talk up Diaz. He did so several times this year, including in his season-ending Zoom press conference.
“I continue to be a big believer in him,” Elias said. “He looked good in Bowie. He drew a lot of walks. He hit a lot of homers. His defense looked great. He’s somebody that’s going to be able to help us in all three outfield spots, and he could have and probably would have come up and debuted this season or been ready to, but we had so many outfielders in the second half that we wanted to give long looks to, mostly Mountcastle and DJ Stewart, that it was really just their turn.”
How will it go when it is Diaz’s turn? If he becomes an everyday regular in 2021, the O’s in fact might be running out of spots to play everyone.
That would be a bit of problem, but not a bad one.