It could be another long season for the Orioles, as a franchise that had only lost 100 games in a season twice during its first 64 seasons in Baltimore is staring its third consecutive 100-loss season squarely in the face. PECOTA seems to think the team will at least avoid the feat, predicting a 63-99 finish, but still finishing with the worst record in baseball.
Don’t Miss Parts 1 and 2 of my Reasons to Be Excited
Last Tuesday, the Orioles did their best to squash whatever optimism there may have been in Birdland by losing a pair of split-squad games by a combined score of the 27-6. The pitching was obviously atrocious, especially in the game against the Tampa Bay Rays where Baltimore pitching walked nine batters.
However, they rebounded nicely over the weekend:
39 runs. 56 hits. 4 games. pic.twitter.com/timXiMYyxz
— Baltimore Orioles (@Orioles) March 2, 2020
No matter what happens in Grapefruit League action, there’s no masking the fact that there is still a long way to go before this rebuild bears fruit. Yet, despite that, we in Birdland do have plenty to be excited for.
This week we’ll take a look at an Orioles outfield that could have a serious impact on a night-to-night basis during the 2020 season.
Orioles in the Outfield
In 2019, the Orioles outfield had its share of ups and downs. While the unit combined to hit 75 home runs and drive in 241 runs, the outfield as a whole was in state of flux for much of the first half.
Trey Mancini, a natural first baseman with a suspect outfield glove, made more starts than anybody in right field. Stevie Wilkerson, a utility infielder who had never played centerfield at any professional level, led the team in games played at the position. Dwight Smith, Jr., meanwhile, played more games than any Oriole in left field and made even the most routine of flyballs look like an adventure.
All told, eleven different players saw action in left field, eight different players in center, and nine different players in right. No other non-pitcher position featured more than six players throughout the season. Yet, by the end of September, the outfield picture began to clear.
Craig Landefeld/GulfBird Sports
Anthony Santander burst onto the scene in 2019, batting .261 with 20 home runs in just 93 games. For the Orioles, it was the kind of performance they envisioned when selecting the outfielder in the Rule V draft prior to the 2017 season.
By June 7th, Santander was a mainstay in the lineup, splitting most of his time between right and left field with the occasional appearance in center. Offensively, his average reached a season-high .310 after a 3-for-4 performance on August 12th, and was still hovering around the .290 mark before fatigue and what was later found to be labrum soreness caused a sharp decline in production.
September was a struggle for the now 25-year-old as he batted just .155 in the season’s final month, dropping his average from .293 on September 1st to .261 by September 23rd. The outfielder’s season ended with him on the bench for the team’s final five games.
While the season ended unfavorably for Santander, his first three months simply cannot be ignored. It was a breakout season, and the future bodes well for the former Rule V pick. If his shoulder holds up – and there’s no structural damage and therefore no reason it shouldn’t – Santander may have cemented himself in the top third of the Orioles lineup in 2020 and a 30-homer, 100 RBI season could be on the horizon with the potential for 600 at-bats.
Craig Landefeld/GulfBird Sports
In part one of this serious, I profiled Austin Hays as one of the two players Orioles fans were most excited to see in 2020, along with Ryan Mountcastle, who could also see his fair share of games in the outfield by season’s end.
Hays provided a spark in September for a club that nobody would have blamed for losing intensity during a grueling season that saw the team lose 108 games. Yet, with the help of Hays’ hair-on-fire style of play, the Orioles played hard to the final pitch, posting their second highest winning percentage of the season for a full month (I won’t post the number, because it still wasn’t good).
Overall, the former 2017 Minor League Player of the Year finalist slashed .309/.373/.574 over 21 games while solidifying centerfield in Baltimore, potentially for years to come. Finally healthy, Hays proved what he can do on both sides of the ball and has Orioles fans excited for a prospect not named Adley Rutschman.
A healthy offseason and a full spring in Major League camp could pay huge dividends for both Hays and the Orioles.
Craig Landefeld/GulfBird Sports
After a solid rookie campaign, Trey Mancini took a step back in 2018 and had many questioning whether he was the player that finished third in 2017 Rookie of the Year voting, or the player that hit .242 in 2018 while posting an on-base percentage below .300. All Mancini did in 2019 was silence his critics in a major way.
The 27-year-old slashed .291/.364/.535 while blasting 35 homers, 38 doubles, and driving in 97 runs. On baseball’s second–worst team, Mancini stood out from the crowd and would have been a no-doubt All-Star had his team been even middling in the standings. Unfortunately for Mancini, 108-loss teams generally don’t have more than the requisite lone All-Star representative, so he missed out due to John Means’ standout rookie season.
Mancini should get most of his starts in right field to begin the season as Chris Davis, who is off to a strong start in Spring Training, is still in the fold at first base. The better Davis plays, the more time Mancini will spend in the outfield, and the more time Mountcastle will spend in the minors.
Still, if Mancini produces at the same level in 2020, and Hays/Santander realize the potential they showed in 2019, the Orioles could boast a formidable outfield, offensively speaking. And if they don’t, there are plenty of players waiting at the upper levels of the Orioles minor league system.
Yusniel Diaz, who made his spring debut last weekend, is a former top prospect with five tool potential who performs best in the spotlight. Injuries seem to be the main obstacle standing in Diaz’s way as the centerpiece coming back in the Manny Machado trade missed nearly half of his team’s games in 2019 due to quad and hamstring injuries. A sore shoulder sidelined the outfielder in Sarasota, though reports are that it was all just a precaution.
Another top-30 prospect is Ryan McKenna, who might be the best defensive outfielder in the Orioles system. The speedster played six years of varsity baseball—that’s right, he was on his varsity baseball team in seventh grade—and grades out as a plus-plus defender who could move Hays to a corner outfield spot in the future.
McKenna had a big year for the Frederick Keys in 2018, batting .377 with 18 doubles in 67 games before earning a promotion to Double-A Bowie. His average has suffered in the International League, batting just .234 in parts of two seasons for the Eastern League runner-up Baysox, but he tied for the league lead in runs scored in 2019 while lacing 26 doubles. The Orioles could start McKenna at either Bowie or Norfolk, but no matter where he starts the year, he could very well end the year in Baltimore. It’s up to him to make that happen.
All-in-all, the Orioles have a budding outfield that could turn into a strength for the organization, and they even have some prospects at the lower levels of the minors in Kyle Stowers, Zach Watson, and Johnny Rizer that could make waves in the next couple of seasons.
Next up in part four of my “Reasons to be Excited” series, I’ll dive into the Orioles bullpen as the unit could be ready to take a leap forward in 2020 and beyond.