Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images
Given how offensively spotty and defensively incompetent the Orioles outfielders were last season, this is almost a statistical certainty.
Less than two weeks ‘til spring training starts! Do you know who’s really excited for spring training? Austin Hays.
— Austin Hays (@TheAustinHaysss) January 28, 2020
Tweeted out by Hays on Tuesday, that hype video makes me feel like I’m in a world of limitless possibility. Hays for Rookie of the Year! And a Gold Glove! Hanser for Silver Slugger, why not?! Adley 2020! Guys, we’re gonna win the Series!
Back in the world of reality, projections remain lowly for this team when it comes to measurables and—whomp whomp—playoff chances, but one thing seems a lock: there will be vastly more watchable play on the diamond next season. The addition of shortstop José Iglesias has made the infield a happening place to be, and while the outfield has not seen any offseason action, that’s OK, because it’s shaping up to be a strength of this team.
Let’s look back at the outfield in 2019 (briefly; it’s best not to spend too much time back in 2019). Over the course of 162 games, the corners were mostly manned by Dwight Smith Jr., Trey Mancini, Anthony Santander, DJ Stewart, Joey Rickard, and Mason Williams. Center was a revolving door featuring Cedric Mullins, Keon Broxton, Stevie Wilkerson, and eventually, Austin Hays.
Together, Dwight Smith Jr. (in left) and Trey Mancini (in right) were responsible for a total -35 defensive runs saved. (Keon Broxton, for reference, saved 9 runs. But he couldn’t hit: a .209 batting average and 79 OPS+ in 905 at-bats.) Add in Stevie Wilkerson, giving it the old college try in center, and the total runs squandered by three Orioles outfielders with the most playing time rises to 47.
Next season, figure to see Anthony Santander take over most of those innings in left, and the picture looks a lot better. Over 40 games in left last season, Santander ranked as just a hair below-average, with -4 runs saved, according to BRef, and a -0.1 UZR, according to Fangraphs. To me, those numbers seem fluky: for instance, Santander had a plus range factor over 50 games in right field (1.95), while his arm got a plus rating—but only in center field. You figure that consistent starts will help Tony figure things out, and it’s easy to imagine him putting up consistently just-above-average defensive numbers in left.
After he spent several injury-prone seasons in the minors, Orioles fans can finally celebrate the dawning of the age of Austin Hays in center field. A surprise call-up last September, Hays was a dynamo and veritable highlight machine in just 20 games where he hit .309/.373/.973 with a 147 OPS+. As to his defensive numbers, it’s hard to extrapolate from such a small sample, but there’s major promise there: a 1.0 UZR (9.9 UZR/150) and 1.0 arm strength score from Fangraphs, coupled with a 3.23 range factor score from BRef. The question will probably be Hays’ bat: Fangraphs’ Dan Szymborski projects a .250/.289/.441 slashline and 94 OPS+ for Hays, but concedes that he might be underrating him due to his past injuries and lack of past big-league playing time.
Right field looks to be where the subpar defenders will be stashed. Unless something changes, Chris Davis is still the Orioles’ first baseman, ergo Trey Mancini is still the Orioles’ right fielder. It is not really his fault that he put up a -5.5 UZR in right last season, and it shouldn’t really be a concern for him if offensively he gets anywhere near the fantastic year he had last season, when he batted .291/.364/.535 with 35 homers and a 135 OPS+ to sew up Most Valuable Oriole honors. Still, it’d be good to see Mancini slide back to his original position, an eventuality that could become a reality if Chris Davis fails to put up productive numbers for a third year in a row. In that case, Mancini’s presumptive replacement would be DJ Stewart, who’s recovering from ankle surgery and didn’t show much to write home about defensively last season (a -1.2 UZR and -1.1 arm score).
With MLB rules now permitting teams to carry 26 players, the Orioles figure to hold onto utility guys Dwight Smith, Jr., notwithstanding his lack of range, and Stevie Wilkerson. Cedric Mullins and Mason Williams are also getting spring training invites and could play themselves into the conversation. Questions will arise with the impending arrivals of No. 4 and No. 5 prospects Ryan Mountcastle and Yusniel Diaz, who probably won’t start with the team (the unbreakable law of Mike Elias: minor league experience matters more than spring training performance), but should get outfield reps with the Orioles by season’s end.
Let’s be honest: as with last year, the real Achilles’ heel for this team is going to be pitching. Especially starting pitching. There are plenty of options—intriguing or otherwise—and there may be some success stories. But the odds of this team not finishing in the bottom-five in ERA and home runs allowed remain miniscule.
So let’s focus on the good. In the thick of this long rebuild, it’s not wrong for Orioles fans to put on their orange-colored glasses, so to speak, and look to the best of this team, this season and going forward. Last season, the outfield was a place where the Orioles stashed some of their best bats, and this season, with defensive replacements, upgrades, and midseason additions, the picture could look even better.