You never need to struggle to find something weird about the Baltimore Orioles. That was especially true in 2019, and there was a lot to choose from. Here's one of the weirdest: Stevie Wilkerson, who admitted to reporters he had “never played center field in [his] life before this season,” played almost twice as many innings at that position than anyone else on the team.
The Orioles' roster clearly was not overflowing with outfield talent (or just talent in general), but there was some promise before the season. Cedric Mullins was the opening day center fielder, while Austin Hays waited for his chance as he continued his development in the minors. There was also hope for Trey Mancini to have a bounce-back season.
Mancini ended up bouncing back in a major way with career highs in wRC+ (132) and FanGraphs WAR (3.6), primarily playing right field (87 games) and first base (56). But things didn't go according to plan in center field for much of the season. Mullins couldn't hit and was demoted to Triple-A in late April; Joey Rickard played himself off the roster as well, and Keon Broxton, acquired in May, could only hang around for a couple months before his bat made him unplayable. Even left field was a revolving door until Anthony Santander arrived and held down the fort for a while.
Mullins struggling was a major disappointment, but the Orioles should head into 2020 with more optimism in their outfield options. Much of that positivity stems from Hays, who joined the Orioles in September instead of reporting to the Arizona Fall League thanks to a rule change for players on the 40-man roster.
Even pessimists had to be satisfied with Hays' exciting September. In 21 games and 75 plate appearances, he batted .309/.373/.574 (146 wRC+), stole two bases and made several highlight-reel catches (including a home run robbery of a Vladimir Guerrero Jr. blast that was one of the season's top defensive plays).
Strong September performances can often be misleading, so it may be a mistake to read too much into Hays' late-season numbers. But the tools and instincts on display were just as impressive. It's hard to fake speed; Hays' sprint speed ranked in the 85th percentile in the majors, per Statcast. The same can be said for getting good jumps on line drives and fly balls, or running the bases well. In Hays' limited playing time, he ranked third on the Orioles in FanGraphs' baserunning metric behind Jonathan Villar and Jace Peterson. Hays has earned an opening day gig and an extended look in center field. Now, he just needs to stay on the field and off the injured list; in 2018 and 2019, he struggled with ankle, thumb and hamstring ailments.
While the Hays hype train was rolling along at breakneck speed, Santander's was crawling to a stop. Santander posted a respectable 114 wRC+ from June through August, but in September he amassed a wRC+ of just 23 in 87 plate appearances. Some of his slump could be attributed to fatigue or injury (or both), as manager Brandon Hyde alluded to near the end of the season without providing specifics. Santander didn't appear in the Orioles' last five games.
Still, Santander's ascent was a pleasant surprise, and his 97 wRC+ and 0.7 fWAR were third best among Orioles outfielders. After hitting just one home run in brief major-league stints from 2017-2018, he hit 20 in 2019. He also showed more than DJ Stewart (82 wRC+) and Dwight Smith Jr. (83 wRC+), who are both shaky outfielders whose bats need to carry them.
Barring any trades or a decision to finally move on from first baseman Chris Davis, the Orioles' likely opening day outfield will be Santander in left field, Hays in center and Mancini in right. As has always been the case, Mancini is a better and more natural fit at first base. But with Davis still around and Ryan Mountcastle's arrival approaching in 2020, Mancini simply may never get his shot to be the Orioles' full-time first baseman.
Meanwhile, the Orioles could face a similar dilemma with Mountcastle. The Orioles don't seem to want to pigeonhole him into being just a first baseman and designated hitter yet, which is why he played some left field for the first time in his career at Triple-A in 2019. It's unlikely the Orioles would keep Davis around to block Mountcastle at first base if the Orioles don't believe he can become a competent enough outfielder. It's also hard to imagine a scenario in which Mountcastle and Mancini man the corner outfield spots for the Orioles while Davis plays first base. And yet ... it is a rather maddening scenario to ponder.
For now, it makes sense to focus on the positives. Mancini is the Orioles' best hitter, Hays has flashed a bunch of tools in a small amount of time and Santander could blossom into a useful player. Smith and Stewart both seem limited, but they provide some decent outfield depth. With the ability to play center field, Mason Williams could also return as a capable fourth outfielder.
Beyond maybe-outfielder Mountcastle, outfield prospect Yusniel Diaz is not far from the majors but has work to do. Ryan McKenna is not nearly as close and has yet to impress in Double-A. And while there's no reason to give up on him, Mullins has his work cut out for him to get back to the majors. Rich Dubroff of BaltimoreBaseball.com recently reported that the Orioles will be “sending Mullins to a private batting school in California in an attempt to remake him as a hitter.” It could pay dividends.
As far as Wilkerson goes, the days of the Oriole needing him to play any kind of regular role in the outfield are probably over. The Orioles are far from set in the outfield, though things are looking up. But never say never ...
Weighted runs created plus (wRC+) is an offensive metric in which 100 is the league average and every point above 100 is a percentage point above league average.
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox
Issue 258: October 2019
Originally published Oct. 15, 2019