How Will O’s Utilize Plethora of Young Outfielders?

Cedric Mullins in the batter's box.
GulfBird Sports/Craig Landefeld

One bittersweet topic that has surfaced in Baltimore over the past few months is the upcoming departure of Adam Jones. Some fans may view it as just bitter, with no sweet mixture, as the long-time face of the franchise has been holding down center field in Baltimore from the start of 2008 until August 10 of this past season, when he agreed to slide to right field to pave the way for rookie Cedric Mullins.

Assuming Jones will not be returning to Baltimore on a new contract this offseason, his 11-year tenure featured a .279/.319/.459 slash line with 263 long balls, five All-Star appearances, four Gold Glove awards, and one Silver Slugger award.

With one door closing, however, opens up many more.

As mentioned above, Jones moved to right field to help start Mullins’ career in center field. Unless new general manager Mike Elias or whomever he chooses to hire to manage the Orioles in 2019 decides otherwise, it’s safe to assume Mullins will be starting in center on Opening Day.

Who will be starting on each side of the 24-year-old, though?

There are five in-house options to play alongside Mullins for consistent time at some point in 2019. Let’s take a look at each.

Trey Mancini gets ready to field.

GulfBird Sports/Craig Landefeld

 

Trey Mancini

I’d imagine there is a goal to find a way to move Trey Mancini from left field to either first base or designated hitter. With Chris Davis’ huge contract on the books through 2022, the only way to make this happen is to take Mark Trumbo out of the equation.

So, unless the Orioles can trade away Trumbo to another team this offseason, Mancini is very likely going to be in left field again to start the new season. In 1,500.2 innings over two seasons in left field, he has recorded -13 DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) and has a -13.1 UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating), which is certainly much less than ideal.

It’s looking likely that he’ll be trotting out in left field to start the year, but I’d be surprised if he’s still out there after the non-waiver trade deadline.

D.J. Stewart positioned in the outfield.

GulfBird Sports/Craig Landefeld

 

D.J. Stewart

Like Mullins, D.J. Stewart hit the big stage as a rookie for the Orioles in 2018. The 25-year-old left-handed hitter was a first-round draft pick by the organization in 2015. However, scouting reports haven’t bought into him being first-round material, as he is currently 22nd in the club’s prospect rankings, via MLB Pipeline.

In limited chances, Stewart impressed, slashing .250/.340/.550 with three home runs over just 47 plate appearances. Despite concern over his stocky size in the outfield, the six-foot, 230-lb. rookie showed decent athleticism, swiping two bases and playing adequate defense in the corner-outfield spots.

If the Orioles do find a way to deal Trumbo this offseason and move Mancini out of the outfield, this would make things a lot easier for Stewart to grab a starting outfield gig out of camp. But until that happens, I’d assume he’ll be in competition for the right field job during Spring Training.

Joey Rickard throws.

GulfBird Sports/Craig Landefeld

 

Joey Rickard

There are probably four different possibilities for Joey Rickard’s role with the 2019 Orioles: starting right fielder, platoon in right field with Stewart, bench outfielder, or no spot on the roster at all.

How could Rickard start in right field, you’re probably asking. My guess would be that the only time this happens is in the beginning of the season. With a below-average defender in Mancini in left field, and Mullins about to start his first full-year in the big leagues in center, the Orioles may opt to start a better defensive outfielder in right field to help Mullins out. Over the past two seasons, Rickard has recorded +9 DRS and a +5.1 UZR in right. If you’re looking for defensive help alongside Mullins, Rickard may be your guy.

He could also platoon with Stewart right out of the gate. In order to help ensure better defense, but still get Stewart reps, Rickard could simply be a late-game defensive replacement while also getting the starts in right against southpaws. In his three-year career, Rickard has shown to be a pretty good hitter against lefties, slashing .284/.328/.439, as opposed to his .231/.280/.336 career line against right-handers.

The likely role here, in my opinion, is serving as a reserve outfielder. He would be used as a late-in-game defensive replacement and/or pinch runner, as well as getting a start here and there to rest the starters. I believe that with this current roster, the reserve role is one at which Rickard would perform well.

The only option remaining would be if the club chooses not to carry Rickard at all. This would surprise me, but I guess it’s possible if the organization looks to add another defensive-minded outfielder in free agency.

Austin Hays follows through on his swing.

GulfBird Sports/Craig Landefeld

 

Austin Hays

This has been a crazy roller coaster ride for Austin Hays. In his first professional season in 2017, Hays killed High-A pitching, batting .328/.364/.592 through 64 games. He was then promoted to Double-A Bowie, where he played another 64 games, slashing .330/.367/.594. This earned him a call-up to Baltimore, where he played 20 games and sported a .217/.238/.317 line while getting his feet wet in the majors. After his impressive first full year of professional ball, he was ranked the Orioles number one prospect and the 23rd-best prospect in the game by MLB Pipeline.

However, Hays had a 2018 campaign to forget. In just 66 games in Double-A Bowie in an injury-plagued season, Hays batted .242/.271/.432. He has fallen off MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 list entirely, and has dropped to the Orioles’ fourth-best prospect.

The Orioles hope he can have a healthy 2019 and return to the level at which he played in in 2017. If he can do that, he may be an impact starter at the big-league level. If he fails to come close to replicating his 2017 production, he may have a platoon or reserve outfielder label attached to his name going forward.

Yusniel Diaz follows through on his swing.

 

Yusniel Diaz

This is the guy everyone wants to get a look at. Yusniel Diaz, the prize of the package sent from the Los Angeles Dodgers in return for shortstop Manny Machado in July, is ranked the organization’s number-one prospect and 52nd-overall in the game, per MLB Pipeline.

After slashing .314/.428/.477 in Double-A Tulsa to start the year, the 22-year-old outfielder got off to a rocky start in Bowie, batting .239/.329/.403 in 38 games to close out the year. However, you can make the case that this can be chalked up to taking time to settle in with a new organization. He batted an uninspiring .182/.297/.273 in his first 16 games in Bowie, but turned it around with a .278/.352/.494 line with four homers in his final 22 games of the year.

I would be surprised if Diaz breaks camp with the big-league club for Opening Day. But with a little more seasoning in the minors, it’s possible that he could be the starting right fielder for the O’s not only for the majority of this upcoming season, but also many years to come.

It may not be much of an issue on Opening Day, but the Orioles could have a very crowded outfield in the middle of the season. Like I’ve said previously, keeping Trumbo around complicates the matter. Being able to move Mancini out of the outfield means having four outfielders – Mullins, Stewart, Hays, and Diaz – for three spots, as opposed to those four having to find time in just two spots.

This is very much a good problem for the club to potentially have on their hands, however. Stewart, Hays, and Diaz are still prospects, and Mullins still has much to prove. There’s no saying all four are going to pan out the way everyone hopes them to, so having this plethora creates a pretty good situation for the O’s.

I guess I can’t let this post come to an end without a prediction, so here’s my thinking of what could happen:

— Opening Day: Mancini in left, Mullins in center, and a Stewart/Rickard platoon in right.

— End of season: Stewart and Hays splitting time in left, Mullins and Hays splitting time in center, and Diaz full-time starter in right field. Trumbo traded at the non-waiver trade deadline to move Mancini out of the outfield.

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