By Dan Connolly
The Baltimore Sun
4:52 PM EDT, March 24, 2014
SARASOTA, Fla. -- The Orioles added another player to their infield mix Monday, acquiring switch-hitting local product Steve Lombardozzi Jr. in a trade that sent veteran infielder Alex Gonzalez to the Detroit Tigers.
Lombardozzi, 25, who is from Fulton in Howard County and graduated from Atholton High School in Columbia, immediately becomes an option at second and third base while the Orioles fill the temporary hole created by the club’s decision to place third baseman Manny Machado on the 15-day disabled list to start the season.
“We are taking him right now with that in mind,” Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette said. “We’ll see how it goes in the next couple days, but our reports are that he can play second, third and in the outfield. And he can contribute offensively from both sides of the plate. Good fundamental player.”
To make room for Lombardozzi on the 40-man roster, the club designated catcher Johnny Monell for assignment. Monell lost his battle for the backup catcher job last week to Steve Clevenger, another local product who graduated from Mount St. Joseph.
At first glance, Monday’s trade seems like a definite coup for the Orioles, who signed the 37-year-old Gonzalez to a minor league deal in January and then dealt him for a much younger player with minor league options remaining. But the trade was spurred by the Tigers’ recent misfortune of losing starting shortstop Jose Iglesias for at least the majority of this season due to stress fractures in both shins.
“Detroit needed a shortstop. And we have a shortstop [in J.J. Hardy],” Duquette said. “And we have some other players that can back up at shortstop. So we had some depth that was available in the trade.”
The American League Central champions were scrambling to find Iglesias’ replacement, and the Tigers front office — including president Dave Dombrowski and assistant general manager Al Avila — was familiar with Gonzalez from their days together with the Florida Marlins, for whom Gonzalez played from 1998 to 2005.
After hitting .177 in 118 plate appearances last year with the Milwaukee Brewers, the defensive-minded Gonzalez batted .310 in 35 winter league games in his native Venezuela and then hit .429 in 12 games for the Orioles this spring. He had been the leader for the Orioles’ utility spot and was told by manager Buck Showalter that he would have made the team had he not been traded.
“For me, I was a little bit surprised,” said Gonzalez, who learned about the trade from Showalter around 9:30 a.m. Monday. “This morning, you know there’s a [Orioles’ roster] decision, and you’re thinking about it. Detroit wanted me. I’m excited for the news. For me, it’s a big opportunity, a chance to play shortstop, and play every day. That’s what I’m looking forward to.”
For the Orioles, it is a chance to get younger while bringing in another player with defensive flexibility and a solid bat to play second base, third base or a utility position now that Machado has officially been sidelined for Opening Day and likely for much of April.
Duquette said disabling Machado, who had left knee surgery in October and is still rehabbing, was not a prime factor in the decision to acquire Lombardozzi.
“I think the Tigers needed a shortstop more than we needed a veteran third baseman,” Duquette said. “We have some other options, players that can play third base other than Alex.”
Ryan Flaherty is expected to start primarily at third base, leaving Lombardozzi competing with rookie Jonathan Schoop, Jemile Weeks and longshot Alexi Casilla for the starting second base position and the utility infield role.
In another potential scenario, acquiring Lombardozzi also could allow the Orioles to keep Rule 5 pick Michael Almanzar if the club really wants to hold onto him. Conceivably, both Schoop and Weeks could be sent down to Triple-A now that the team has another natural second baseman in Lombardozzi.
Almanzar could serve as the backup at first base and third baseman until Machado returns. The Orioles must keep Almanzar on the 25-man roster all season, however, or offer him back to the Boston Red Sox at half of his purchase price. The 23-year-old Almanzar has hit .200 with one homer and nine RBIs in 35 at-bats this spring, but he currently is dealing with a left knee injury and was scheduled for an MRI on Monday.
Originally drafted by the Washington Nationals in the 19th round in 2008 out of St. Petersburg (Fla.) College, Lombardozzi has hit .264 with a .297 career on-base percentage in 257 games over parts of three major league seasons, all with Washington. Part of the offseason deal that sent pitcher Doug Fister to the Nationals, Lombardozzi hit .231 in 14 spring games with Detroit.
“I think I’m not going to be somebody that’s going to wow you in one night,” Lombardozzi said. “I do the little things to help the team win over the course of a week, two weeks. You’ll see how valuable I am to a team, whether it’s getting a guy over, stealing a base, making a great defensive play. I’m just here to help this team win however I can.”
Last year with the Nationals, Lombardozzi made 38 starts at second base, 20 in the outfield and two at third base; 83 of his 149 major league starts have been at second.
“He is good at second base and can also play third and the outfield. Switch-hitter. Good hands. He is a hustler, a scrappy player,” Duquette said. “And he is a local kid. He is from Columbia and we always look for that.”
Lombardozzi’s father, Steve Sr., played six years in the majors and was a member of the Minnesota Twins’ 1987 World Series championship team. He is now the head baseball coach at Good Counsel High School in Olney.
“I like him. Always have. I especially like where he is from [Howard County],” Showalter said of the newest Orioles player. “I hope the apple doesn’t fall too far from his tree. His dad was a good player.”
And for the younger Lombardozzi, the trade once again gives him a chance to play close to home.
“Yeah, I definitely went to Orioles games growing up. I live right down the street pretty much,” he said. “I was fortunate to be at Nationals Park the last two years, so it will be pretty kind of familiar being back in that area.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Eduardo A. Encina contributed to this article.
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