Sorting Orioles corner outfield spots begins with Kim

February 21, 2017 | Luke Jones

At first glance, veteran outfielder Michael Bourn brings obvious skills that the Orioles are lacking.

His speed and defensive ability can be assets for an outfield that ranked last in the majors in defensive runs saved a year ago, but it remains to be seen whether the 34-year-old is a great fit among a crowded group of corner outfielders with question marks. A below-average hitter, the left-handed Bourn is trying to crack a 25-man roster that already needs a viable platoon partner for the lefty-swinging Seth Smith in right field.

And that brings us to the biggest key in sorting out the corner outfield hierarchy for 2017.

The Orioles must find out if left fielder Hyun Soo Kim can be an everyday player. The 29-year-old more than proved himself as the starter against right-handed pitching to the tune of a sparkling .393 on-base percentage last season, but he went hitless in 22 plate appearances against left-handers. That’s hardly a fair sample from which to draw any real conclusion, but an 0-for-17 body of work doesn’t exactly bring confidence, either. His numbers from his final two seasons playing in the Korea Baseball Organization suggest he could be up to the challenge, but that success doesn’t guarantee to translate to the majors.

Either way, he deserves an extended look against southpaw pitchers to find out.

If Kim is able to handle a full-time role, Bourn becomes easier to carry on the bench as a late-inning defensive replacement and a pinch runner while the Orioles use a platoon in right with Mark Trumbo then serving as the everyday designated hitter. But if Kim can’t cut it against lefties, the need for platoons at both corner outfield spots becomes more problematic for the makeup of the roster.

Joey Rickard’s .861 on-base plus slugging percentage against lefties last year makes him the early favorite to serve as a platoon partner, but the Orioles are reportedly intrigued with the defense and speed of Craig Gentry so far in spring training. The problem is that the 33-year-old was little more than a league-average hitter at his best and has posted a .553 OPS over his last 353 plate appearances in the majors dating back to the start of 2014.

It’s worth noting that Bourn posted an .844 OPS in 75 plate appearances against lefties last season, but he owns a career .644 OPS against left-handed pitching. If the Orioles are putting that much stock in those numbers for a potential platoon, the 2016 struggles of both Adam Jones and Trumbo against lefties should be much bigger concerns than they’ll discuss. In other words, you shouldn’t draw anything definitive from one season of work against lefties compared to the larger body of work.

Manager Buck Showalter could always cite the defensive upgrade in left as justification for Bourn playing against left-handers over Kim. The Korean outfielder was worth minus-13 defensive runs saved in left field last season as he lacks range and a strong throwing arm. However, Bourn starting against lefties could create a big hole in a Baltimore lineup that already fared very poorly against lefties in 2016.

The Orioles could also elect to use Trumbo in right field against left-handed pitching, but finding the room to carry Trey Mancini as a designated hitter under such a scenario might be difficult with the addition of Bourn.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that Bourn even makes the club as Rule 5 picks Aneury Tavarez and Anthony Santander shouldn’t be dismissed from the roster discussion. Gentry could win a job to push either Rickard — who has minor-league options — or Bourn from the 25-man roster.

There’s plenty of time for Showalter and executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette to evaluate and decide.

Regardless of how it all plays out, Kim showing the ability to hit left-handers would make life much easier for the Orioles.