Orioles Outfield Questions
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to look very hard to find a few intriguing storylines to follow as the Baltimore Orioles prepare for the 2020 season. John Means is entering an important second season in the big leagues, Hunter Harvey is officially a full-time member of the bullpen and ready for another healthy season, and plenty of Top 30 prospects are prepared to make their major league debuts at some point in the season.
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It won’t be pretty, but 2020 will certainly be more interesting. Fellow Orioles Analyst Rob Shields expanded on a few on those storylines and more in his most recent piece here. We also can’t forget about the June amateur draft where the Orioles will look to add more elite talent to their growing crop down on the farm.
As full-squad spring training workouts prepare to get underway, let’s look at one position group expected to improve this season, the outfield. Specifically, let’s look at five questions we can expect answers to over the course of the season.
Which version of Anthony Santander shows up this season?
My favorite moment from the 2019 season was watching Anthony Santander become the most beloved baseball player in the UK and reminding us all why we fell in love with baseball, because it’s fun. Santander now enters 2020 as the favorite to start in left field, but will need to show consistency at the plate if he wants to stick around and earn a roster spot on a winning Orioles ballclub.
Overall, Santander slashed .261/.297/.476 with 20 home runs, 20 doubles, and a wRC+ of 97. He was worth 0.7 Wins Above Replacement, according to Fangraphs. The 25-year-old switch-hitter hit .320 in July with 11 extra-base hits (124 wRC+) and .274 with 15 extra-base hits in August (118 wRC+) but fell off tremendously in September, hitting .155 with a .505 OPS and 26 strikeouts to just three walks (23 wRC+).
Santander’s swing and miss rate was well below league-average last season, but he chased pitches out of the zone at a 39% rate, more than 10% above league-average. Making contact wasn’t an issue for Santander, but more patience and selectivity at the plate could help boost his numbers. A 4.7% walk rate and .297 OBP aren’t numbers you want to see, but hopefully 93 games at the big league level lead to a more confident Anthony Santander in 2020.
His future may be that of a fourth-outfielder, but his aggressive style in the field, ability to pile up extra-base hits, and production from both sides of the plate should lead to Santander developing into a valuable option.
Is this it for DJ Stewart?
It’s a shame that DJ Stewart may be best remembered for running into Hanser Alberto and injuring his ankle or slipping and having a ball bounce off his head in New York in 2019, but unfortunately, Stewart couldn’t seem to catch a break when called up to the major league roster last season.
Stewart has minor league options remaining, but nothing left to prove in the minor leagues. In his first stint in Triple-A, Stewart hit .235 with a 101 wRC+ and slashed .291/.396/.548 with a 139 wRC+ during his time with the Tides last season. It’s now time for Stewart to show he can stick in the big leagues.
A notoriously slow starter, if Stewart follows the same pattern of progress he’s shows since the Orioles drafted him in the first-round of the 2015 draft, we should see better numbers than his .238 average and .317 OBP he posted in 44 games with the Orioles last season. Injuries hindered his performance last season and are causing him to start behind his peers in 2020, meaning Stewart will have to hit the ground running if he wants to keep a spot at the major league level.
With his sneaky speed and ability to put the ball over the fence (20/20 season with the Baysox in 2017), Stewart profiles as fourth-outfielder type, which could become an issue seeing as both Santander and Cedric Mullins profile as the same type of player. Noted outfield prospects are working their way up through the system, with Ryan McKenna and Yusniel Diaz set to earn a shot in the near future and younger exciting outfield prospects like Kyle Stowers and Zach Watson are set for their first full season in professional ball.
Who is Austin Hays?
Will Austin Hays become the 2020 American League Rookie of the Year? Will a new slew of injuries creep in to take away his 2020 season? Is he just a good, but not great outfielder who will hold the starting center field job due to lack of options? If I’m picking my early candidates for Rookie of the Year this season, one of my votes is going to Austin Hays.
It seems as if Hays should be approaching his age-30 season, but he’s still just 24 years old and has yet to play in more than 66 games at a single stop along his fast-paced tour through the Orioles organization. He was the first 2016 draft pick to reach the majors, appearing in 20 games in 2017. Since then, injuries have wiped away big chunks of his 2018 and 2019 seasons.
Hays now enters 2020 with the starting center field job all but locked up. An eye-opening September performance has fans excited again about Hays, someone who might be suffering from a bit of “prospect fatigue” among fans. He still brings an above-average hit tool, power and glove to the table. A healthy Austin Hays could very well emerge as the offensive leader for this Orioles team in 2020.
ZiPS projects Hays to hit .250 with 21 home runs and 24 doubles, finishing second behind Trey Mancini with a 1.3 fWAR. If he can adjust his pull-heavy approach, find a way to work more walks (has yet to work a walk rate higher than 5% in any stint with at least 200 plate appearances), and stay on the field, Hays can outperform those projections, provide stability in center field, and become a promising piece to build the outfield around moving forward.
Can Cedric Mullins put 2019 behind him?
Cedric Mullins has been a slightly polarizing figure with the Orioles since it became clear that Adam Jones wouldn’t be returning to Baltimore and Mullins was to become the heir to the throne. There was the camp who was fully on board with this decision and excited to see what Mullins could bring to the table, while others were hesitant to hand the keys over to a 24-year-old who hit .235 with a wRC+ of 84 in his first 45 games at the major league level.
Mullins failed to make the starting center field job his last season, hitting .094 with a .181 OBP and a -12 wRC+. Seeing as 100 is league average, it’s safe to say 2019 was an utter disaster for the switch-hitting outfielder.
A demotion to Triple-A didn’t help things as a dejected looking Mullins hit .205 with 15 extra-base hits in 66 games. The body language was poor and his performance at the plate matched. However, his defensive abilities continued to shine in the expansive outfield along the Elizabeth River. Another demotion to Double-A seemed to kick his struggles as Mullins slashed .271/.341/,402 with a 118 wRC+, a 13.7% strikeout rate, and a 9.7% walk rate.
After spending time in the offseason retooling his swing and dedicating himself to improving, Mullins is now out to prove he can make it in the major leagues. With DJ Stewart beginning the year on the injured list and top prospects McKenna and Diaz surely spending the majority of the season in Triple-A, a spot on the 26-man roster is available if Mullins can perform in spring.
Personally, I’d like to see Mullins back in Norfolk as he regains his confidence and tries to put 2019 behind him. There’s no rush for him to get back into the big leagues and if he can find his stroke at the plate, his speed on the basepaths and plus-defensive abilities at all three outfield spots can be an asset in Baltimore.
Will Dwight Smith Jr make it the entire season?
This is a pretty easy one to answer. By the end of 2020, Dwight Smith Jr won’t be on the major league roster. Acquired from the Toronto Blue Jays in exchange for international bonus slot money, Smith had his moments in 2019, hitting .241 with 13 home runs and 16 doubles. His bat came through on occasion with the Orioles, but defensive lapses severely limited his value overall.
Among all qualified outfielders, Baseball Savant ranked Dwight Smith Jr as the sixth-worst outfielder in terms of Outs Above Average with -10 and his actual catch percentage of 80% was six points lower than his expected catch percentage. Only two other outfielders had a worse differential. Fangraphs wasn’t much a fan of his defense either, crediting him with -12 Defensive Runs Saved.
Smith will probably make the Opening Day roster with Stewart on the Injured List, but doesn’t bring any value defensively, unlike Mullins, doesn’t have the bat to outperform Ryan Mountcastle (likely destined for the outfield when he cracks the big league roster), and it won’t take long for a healthy Yusniel Diaz to start banging on the gates of Camden Yards.
Smith does have a minor league option remaining, so he could stick around as minor league depth, but his days at the major league level could be numbered.
A former high school teacher and coach in the mountains of Virginia, Nick Stevens has been writing about the Baltimore Orioles and their minor league system for five years. When he isn’t at a minor league stadium, he’s enjoying a Wizards game or supporting his alma mater, James Madison University.