Orioles position reviews: All week, the Baltimore Banner’s sports staff will review how each position group performed in the 2023 season.
Look around the Orioles’ position player groupings and a similar problem arises. It’s a good problem, of course — executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias always makes sure to emphasize that part — but there’s the head-scratching conundrum of how to fit all of Baltimore’s outfield options on a 26-man roster, as well as into a nine-man batting order.
The trio of Cedric Mullins, Austin Hays and Anthony Santander endured the rebuild together to become the most common outfield grouping during the Orioles’ 101-win season. Ryan McKenna and Aaron Hicks also filled time.
There are also prospects such as Colton Cowser, Heston Kjerstad and Kyle Stowers who will compete for at-bats moving forward. All three of those prospects have debuted already with varying degrees of success, facing the stumbling blocks that tend to crop up for young players in their first foray into the majors.
But with Mullins, Hays and Santander all arbitration eligible again — and with Santander, particularly, set for a major pay raise (MLB Trade Rumors projects Santander near $12 million) — there’s a possibility one of those veterans will be moved in a trade this offseason.
Santander’s name has often been mentioned as a trade chip, but he’s also led the Orioles in home runs two years in a row. Mullins’ offensive production dipped this year, but his defense, as ever, would be hard to replace. And Hays is a Gold Glove finalist in addition to his .769 on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS).
The decisions ahead for Elias will be tricky.
2023 stat lines
Anthony Santander: 153 games played (96 starts in RF and 47 starts at DH), 152 hits, 28 HR, 95 RBI with a .257 batting average and .797 OPS. He had the best season of any Baltimore outfielder, and he once again planted himself in the mix as one of the top power-hitting switch-hitters. His 95 RBIs paced the Orioles, and he tied with Gunnar Henderson for the most homers.
Cedric Mullins: 116 games played (101 starts in CF), 94 hits, 15 HR, 74 RBI with a .233 batting average and .721 OPS. Mullins battled injuries, starting his fewest games in center field in a full season since 2019. Even so, Mullins drove in the fourth-most RBIs (74) on the team and his OPS+ (a measure where 100 is league average) was still 101.
Austin Hays: 144 games played (125 starts in LF), 143 hits, 16 HR, 67 RBI with a .275 batting average and .769 OPS.
Aaron Hicks turned around a slow start to the season with the New York Yankees to hit .275 in Baltimore with an .806 OPS, and Ryan McKenna, playing primarily against left-handed pitching or as a defensive replacement, hit .254.
Baltimore’s outfield prospects featured sparingly. Colton Cowser, 23, played 26 games and hit just .115. Heston Kjerstad blasted two homers and hit .233 in 13 games. And Kyle Stowers played 14 games and hit .067.
Ryan O’Hearn, who broke out for the best season of his major league career, also played in the corner outfield at times, although he primarily featured as a first baseman or designated hitter. Adam Frazier, the primary second baseman, also slotted into the corners on occasion.
Hicks, who was signed partway through the season as cover for the injured Mullins, is a free agent who will likely not return to Baltimore in 2024, given the glut of younger options already under team control.
McKenna, too, could be expendable this offseason. He’s entering arbitration for the first time and MLB Trade Rumors projects him to make about $740,000. What comes in his favor is his defensive prowess in all three outfield spots and his right-handed bat; each of the Orioles’ three young outfield options bat left-handed.
Still, Cowser should command a place on the opening day roster and Mullins, Santander and Hays are still the core group there. Much could change to open space for Kjerstad to receive more at-bats, however, whether those come in the outfield, at DH or at first base.
Prospects to watch
Farther away from Baltimore, Enrique Bradfield Jr. could be another fast riser through the Orioles’ farm system. A first-round pick out of Vanderbilt in 2023, Bradfield plays center field and reached High-A Aberdeen by the end of the season. He looked comfortable in his 17 games at Low-A Delmarva, hitting .302 with an .833 OPS before his call-up.
Jud Fabian and Dylan Beavers are also outfield prospects to watch, even if that is as trade bait for pitching. Both 2022 draft picks reached Double-A Bowie in 2023.
Additional position reviews: