The Baltimore Orioles have a problem. They simply have too many talented players to put onto one major league roster. Having too much talent is the best problem that you can have in professional sports, but nevertheless, it is a problem. There has been a lot of speculation about who will start next season in the outfield for Baltimore, and if some of the current players will be traded away. Only Mike Elias and the front office truly know what might happen but let's take a look at what they have to work with.
Austin Hays put together his best season as a major leaguer in 2023. He remained healthy and played 144 games for the Birds and set career highs in hits (143), runs (76) and doubles (36). Hays also had his highest career batting average in a full season, which helped him make his first all-star team. As valuable as Hays has been offensively, he may be even more of an asset defensively.
He started the all-star game in center field but he has been a pitcher's dream as a left fielder in the expanded Oriole Park left field. Hays was robbed of a gold glove after being perfect in left field this season, making every play that was asked of him without any errors and adding numerous highlight reel catches, not to mention the cannon of an arm that even the fastest runners won't challenge. There has been some trade buzz surrounding Hays, but he should be back in Baltimore come 2024.
Cedric Mullins has been a fan favorite in Baltimore since 2018 when Adam Jones anointed Mullins as the next great O's center fielder. Like Hays, Mullins has provided tremendous value as a defensive player to the O's making unbelievable catches with regularity. Mullins put it all together for one glorious season in 2021 where he was an all-star, silver slugger and became the first Oriole with a 30/30 season.
Unfortunately, Mullins has not been able to duplicate that offensive explosion. His defense and speed on the bases will always have a place, but the regression in his hitting and lack of arm strength could see him knocked to a fourth outfielder spot if one of the younger guys steps up.
Anthony Santander is another player drawing some trade interest. He's been the most consistent outfielder the Orioles have had since his breakout 2020 campaign. He has either led the team outright or tied for the team lead in home runs in each of the last two seasons and has been a mainstay in the heart of the Orioles lineup.
Santander also set career highs in hits (152), runs (81), doubles (41) and RBI's (95) this season. He is a team leader on the field and in the clubhouse and was named the Orioles 2023 Heart and Hustle Award recipient. He should be back in Baltimore next season but he is arguably the most desirable outfielder the O's have and with only one year left on his contract, he could be traded for the right price.
The next in line
The Orioles #3 prospect is Heston Kjerstad who broke into the majors last season and announced his presence by blasting a home run for his first hit in the majors. The numbers he put up won't blow anyone away, but his barrel percentage, hard hit rate and exit velocity would suggest that he was unlucky.
Kjerstad will almost definitely be on the opening day roster and should be able to have plenty of success with a full season to work with. He is an option in the outfield but is likely to see much of his playing time come as a DH or at first base.
Colton Cowser is the Orioles #2 prospect, who also debuted last season. Cowser struggled offensively in his time in Baltimore and was ultimately sent back down to AAA, but make no mistake about it, the kid can play.
Cowser dominated on both sides of the ball last season in Norfolk while helping the team to a National Championship. He has nothing left to prove at that level and should be able to crack the Birds opening day roster if he has a good spring training. If Cowser can adjust to major league pitching this season, he could be the guy to knock Mullins out of his starting role.
In the mix
Having been claimed off of waivers from the Atlanta Braves on November 1, Sam Hilliard is one of the newest members of the Orioles family. The Orioles will be his third team in as many years as Hilliard has struggled to find consistent playing time in the majors.
Hilliard is a left-handed hitter but has been less than spectacular offensively in the big leagues. His value comes as an outfielder with good range who’s capable of playing all three positions, and he can steal a base. Hilliard will earn $800,000 this season and is under control through 2026 but he’ll likely struggle to be anything more than a depth piece if he even makes the roster.
Hilliard’s biggest competition for his role is Ryan McKenna who has spent parts of the last three seasons with the Birds. McKenna came under fire last season after an early error led to a loss in Boston, but that was his only error on the season.
He was primarily used as a defensive replacement late in games that can provide elite defense anywhere in the outfield, and as a pinch runner with great speed. McKenna does whatever is asked of him, is estimated to make the same money as Hilliard, is three years younger than Hilliard and is under team control through 2027. He’ll likely be back with the O’s in the same role next season.
The forgotten man in all of this is Kyle Stowers. After breaking into the majors and showing promise in 2022, Stowers was a part of the Orioles opening day roster in 2023. Unfortunately, I think he would prefer to forget everything after that. Stowers went 2-30 in 14 games with the Orioles before spending the rest of the season in the minors where injuries took away any chance of returning to Baltimore last season. With the emergence of Kjerstad and Cowser, Stowers fell off the radar but he’s healthy now and looking to make his return to Baltimore. Stowers may have been forgotten by many, but recently received praise from Elias and should get another chance this spring.
Will all eight of these players on the 40 man roster, Brandon Hyde will have some tough decisions to make. Not having enough playing time to go around is a problem, but I doubt you’ll hear Hyde complaining any time soon.