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State of Orioles outfield worth monitoring as 2024 unfolds

It wasn’t long ago that the outfield was the rare bright spot as the Orioles plodded through a multi-season rebuild. 

While the rest of the lineup included placeholders such as Rio Ruiz, Kelvin Gutierrez, and Pedro Severino, some combination of Austin Hays, Cedric Mullins, and Anthony Santander has been in every Opening Day lineup since 2019. These three have made up the starting outfield in each of the last three openers and are on track to do it a fourth consecutive time on March 28 unless Santander serves as the designated hitter, something he did more frequently last season. 

All three have experienced their share of ups and downs with injuries or inconsistency, but Hays, Mullins, and Santander have been worth a combined 29.1 wins above replacement over their careers and have been pivotal to the organization’s turnaround as holdovers preceding the arrival of general manager Mike Elias. That’s why it was so special watching them celebrate Baltimore’s first trip to the postseason since 2016 last fall after they had suffered through multiple 100-plus-loss seasons. 

Hays, Mullins, and Santander deserved to taste that success more than anyone. 

But knocks on the door from Triple-A Norfolk are getting louder as these three move closer to free agency. Coming off the two best seasons of his career, the 29-year-old Santander is entering his final year of club control and is set to make $11.7 million before hitting free agency next winter. Hays and Mullins have each enjoyed an All-Star selection and won’t become free agents until after 2025, but the former has worn down at the plate over the second half of the last two campaigns and the latter was hampered by groin injuries for much of last year, making it fair to want to ease their workloads this coming season. 

Make no mistake, these are good veteran outfielders who remain important to the Orioles’ fortunes in 2024, but Elias must also consider the future, especially with top outfield prospects Colton Cowser and Heston Kjerstad — and Kyle Stowers also making noise this spring — having little left to prove in the minors. While a contract extension for any of the veteran incumbents isn’t completely out of the question at the right price, we’re not talking about the kind of talents clubs typically prioritize for long-term contracts in the way fans are currently clamoring to extend catcher Adley Rutschman and infielder Gunnar Henderson, two budding superstars. That’s especially true with Cowser and Kjerstad seemingly ready to sink or swing in the majors and other outfield prospects such as Enrique Bradfield Jr. and Dylan Beavers moving their way through the system. 

So, what does this mean for Baltimore’s Opening Day roster?

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With the overall roster churn being slower than many anticipated, it’s difficult to predict another big trade being made this spring after Elias sent infielder Joey Ortiz — a prospect who was blocked — and lefty DL Hall to Milwaukee to acquire ace pitcher Corbin Burnes. The Orioles have shown a preference to maintain as much organizational depth as possible, which is notable with infielders Jorge Mateo and Ramon Urias and reserve outfielder Ryan McKenna all being out of minor-league options.

Of course, the top question of the spring is whether No. 1 prospect and infielder Jackson Holliday will open the season in Baltimore with his status impacting other roster decisions. Based on the conclusion of last season and considering minor-league options or the lack thereof, the Orioles would appear to have 11 position players on the 26-man roster for now: Rutschman, Henderson, Hays, Mullins, Santander, Mateo, Urias, first basemen Ryan Mountcastle and Ryan O’Hearn, infielder Jordan Westburg, and backup catcher James McCann. That leaves room for two more — assuming Baltimore carries 13 pitchers — with one of the spots going to Holliday or very likely another infielder such as free-agent newcomer Kolten Wong.

The last remaining opening would then go to an outfielder. While O’Hearn saw limited action at the corner outfield spots last year and Mateo is trying to increase his value as an outfield option this spring, the preference would be another strong defender capable of backing up center field and covering the more expansive left field at Camden Yards. That leaves the door open for McKenna — a favorite of manager Brandon Hyde and popular in the clubhouse — to stick, but his career .617 on-base plus slugging percentage limits his value as a reserve.

That’s why this spring is so critical for Cowser, Kjerstad, and Stowers to show off their defensive skills as well as their ability at the plate. Given the injury history and contract status of the veteran starters, the time is ripe for at least one of the youngsters to earn a more prominent role and ease some of the everyday burden on Hays, Mullins, and Santander in the way veteran Aaron Hicks did for stretches last season. If the goal is to keep everyone as healthy and productive as possible for the entire season, there are more than enough starts to go around to keep a fourth outfielder in the starting mix, especially if that individual’s defense is up to the challenge. With such talent in the pipeline, there’s simply no need to lean too hard on Hays, Mullins, and Santander at this point.

Despite a brutal introduction to the big leagues that included a .115 average in 77 plate appearances last season, Cowser remains the most logical all-around choice on paper with an .896 OPS over 523 Triple-A plate appearances and better defensive ability than he showed in his call-up last year. Kjerstad brings serious power upside with his left-handed bat, but it remains to be seen whether his defense will be strong enough for anything but right field, leaving him somewhat redundant with Santander and O’Hearn already projected to be on the roster. Stowers is the perceived long shot after a difficult 2023, but he shouldn’t be dismissed after flashing his potential as a rookie two years ago. 

Tough choices with no guarantees, of course, but these are good problems to have.

For one more Opening Day, Hays, Mullins, and Santander are set to man the outfield after helping transform the Orioles into a serious contender. But what unfolds after that remains to be seen as the next batch of young outfielders pushes for a chance. 

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