Austin Hays' injury hamstrings Orioles' outfield defense - BaltimoreBaseball.com

Rich Dubroff

Austin Hays’ injury hamstrings Orioles’ outfield defense

Orioles first baseman Trey Mancini was characteristically hard on himself after Thursday’s Opening Day loss, knowing that he’s capable of better. Mancini will rightfully be given lots of space from fans who are thankful to see him well and playing after undergoing colon cancer surgery and chemotherapy last year.

He’ll get better, sooner rather than later, and hit like the player he was from 2017-2019.

Besides being disappointed in his first week’s performance, Mancini said that he had spoken with Ryan Mountcastle, who had two straight difficult days in left field.

Neither Mancini nor Mountcastle is a natural outfielder. Mancini, who’s back at first base, became an adequate outfielder. The Orioles hope Mountcastle can become one, too.

Mountcastle is playing left field because Austin Hays isn’t. Hays strained his right hamstring in the April 4th 11-3 win over the Boston Red Sox.

With Hays in left field, Cedric Mullins in center and Anthony Santander in right, the Orioles’ outfield is strong. It’s shakier with Mountcastle in left.

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Last August, Mountcastle surprised observers by playing decently in left after being moved there to find a position for him. He caught the balls he was supposed to catch and hit well.

So far in 2021, Mountcastle has started in left four times, the games Hays has missed. In the Orioles’ first seven games, Mountcastle is hitting .179, including a two-run homer on Thursday, with five RBIs and 11 strikeouts in 30 at-bats, His only two walks came in the 11-3 win on April 4th.

His stats are nearly identical to Mancini’s. Both are 5-for-28 with 11 strikeouts and two walks. Mancini has yet to hit a homer and has three RBIs.

The difference is, Mancini is back at first base, where he’s most comfortable. It also happens to be where Mountcastle is most comfortable at this point. In his minor league career, Mountcastle was moved around in an effort to find a position he could play well. He started at shortstop, went to third, then to first, and finally to left.

With Hays in left field, Mountcastle can be the designated hitter. A former major leaguer told me that if Mountcastle hits .280 with 28 home runs and 85 RBIs, his defense will get a pass. If he gets hot at the plate, assume will happen, although his defensive miscues the past two games make it seem as if he has regressed.

Hays was 2-for-10 before he went on the 10-day injured list on Monday. Hamstrings are tricky. When outfielder DJ Stewart injured his left hamstring on March 5th, the Orioles said he’d be back quickly. Stewart didn’t play in another Grapefruit League game and started the season on the injured list, but could return on Saturday.

The Orioles optioned infielder Pat Valaika to the alternate site at Bowie on Friday.

If Hays, who wants to prove he can play through a season without a major injury, is able to come back in perhaps two weeks, that shouldn’t be a huge worry. If he’s gone a month or longer, that would be a concern.

Ryan McKenna, who the Orioles added when Hays was shelved, is a strong defensive outfielder but an unproven hitter. Because of the cancellation of the minor league season in 2020, McKenna never got to play Triple-A.

McKenna came into Wednesday’s game as a defensive replacement for Mountcastle. He also could back up Cedric Mullins in center field.

If Stewart plays in the outfield, Mountcastle could be the designated hitter. Stewart has more experience playing the outfield but is not as strong as Mullins, Hayes and Santander.

Through the first week of games, the Orioles are 10th in the American League with a .219 batting average and last in on-base percentage (.265).

They have struck out 91 times, an average of 13 per game, and have a major league record streak of five games with 13 or more strikeouts.

The Orioles have gotten little offense from their infielders. In addition to Mancini, shortstop Freddy Galvis (.115), second baseman Rio Ruiz (.174), third baseman Maikel Franco (.179) and utility players Urias (.167) and Valaika (.111) are under .200.

Mullins has hits in each of the first seven games and is hitting .448 while playing an excellent center field. Abandoning switch hitting and batting exclusively from the left side has helped him.

Although Santander is hitting just .231 with a .605 OPS, his right field defense has been superb. I was sitting directly in the line of his game-ending throw at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday night, and it was a beauty.

Through the first week, Oriole pitchers have a 4.00 ERA. It’s too early for many in-depth observations. The nicest surprise has been right-hander Adam Plutko, who’s thrown 5 1/3 scoreless innings, allowing three hits without a walk. Plutko was acquired from Cleveland just before the end of spring training.

For the moment, the Orioles seem committed to retaining their two Rule 5 draft picks, right-handers Mac Sceroler and Tyler Wells. Sceroler has pitched only once, throwing 2 2/3 scoreless innings. Wells has allowed two runs on three hits in 3 1/3 innings. He has appeared in three games.

Executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias said near the end of spring training that there will be countless moves, and that pitchers on the 40-man roster and some not on it will pitch for the team in 2021.

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