As many holes as the Orioles still must fill this offseason with less than four weeks until pitchers and catchers report to Sarasota, Fla. — and all the focus centering on the club’s dire need for starting pitching — there’s another pressing need that hasn’t been discussed nearly as much but still bears importance.
For the past six seasons, Ryan Flaherty has played an important role as the club’s utility man, a player who can come off the bench and play all around the infield, both corner outfield spots and even assume the emergency catcher role. That provided immense value, and in some ways compensated for a bat that compiled a career .215/.284/.355 batting line.
In recent years, Orioles manager Buck Showalter stressed that he’d like to give his veterans more days off to preserve them physically through a long season. Most years, that doesn’t happen. Last season, the team was hurt by a shoulder injury that kept Flaherty out for three months.
Now, with Flaherty a free agent, the Orioles need to fill the utility role. And considering that the infield is in more flux than recent years — if Manny Machado remains with the club, will he have his request to move to shortstop fulfilled, and how does that affect Tim Beckham as well as the rest of the infield — filling that spot might be more important than it’s been in recent years.
There are few options internally. The only four infielders on the team’s current 40-man roster are the club’s current starters. The most likely internal option to fill the utility role would be Luis Sardiñas, who played well last season at Triple-A Norfolk, primarily at shortstop and second base. The team also re-signed Rubén Tejada, who filled in last year when J.J. Hardy was hurt before the Orioles acquired Beckham in a deadline deal with the Tampa Bay Rays.
The free-agent market is also light. Just a few days ago, the Washington Nationals re-signed Howie Kendrick to a two-year, $7 million deal to serve in a utility role. While Kendrick is still a solid offensive player, posting an .844 OPS in 91 games last season, he is primarily a second baseman, and the Orioles need a utility man who is strong at shortstop.
Take away Kendrick and Eduardo Núñez, who still sits on the free-agent market, the rest of the crop of available utility men are lackluster, a group that includes Stephen Drew, Cliff Pennington, José Reyes and Darwin Barney. Though they are veteran players, some might have to settle for minor league deals.
The priority for that spot should always be placed on defense, finding a player who can hold his own at a variety of positions in the infield, particularly shortstop. That’s in part what made Flaherty valuable, and having one bench player who can play all over is the only way the Orioles can keep additional Rule 5 draft picks on the roster, especially since they’d still need to carry outfielder Anthony Santander for the season’s first six weeks.
One player who could prove to be an interesting fit, and be controllable for three more seasons, is former Toronto Blue Jays infielder Ryan Goins, who was nontendered in December. Goins, who turns 30 in February, has been a plus defender at both second base and shortstop, posting 25 defensive runs saved over a career that’s spanned parts of five seasons. He is a left-handed hitter, something the Orioles could use off the bench in balancing their lineup, and could be signed for a discount after being nontendered before his first arbitration-eligible season.
While adding a utility man seems like it should be down on the Orioles’ list of priorities, it is an addition that will be important in many ways, and while waiting out the starting pitching market, the club could pursue an upgrade now.
Acquiring a player who can fill multiple positions is key, giving Showalter flexibility he didn’t have last year. However, how will the Orioles move forward with Machado and Beckham? Do they commit the shortstop position to one or the other? Who plays third if Machado moves? Does Beckham move around the field to keep his bat in the lineup? All are questions that must be answered, but they’re more easily answered if the Orioles have a solid utility man in place.