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Breaking down the five ways the Orioles can fill their infield needs this winter

Orioles manager Brandon Hyde understands that part of the job of a rebuilding club’s manager is to paper over big departures on his roster every offseason until things turn around, but even he had to acknowledge Monday that losing José Iglesias, Hanser Alberto and Renato Núñez over the last month were “big losses” to his clubhouse.

For the third straight offseason, the Orioles lost a starting infielder for financial reasons after Tim Beckham wasn’t tendered a contract in 2018, Jonathan Villar was dealt at the tender deadline in 2019 and Iglesias was traded and Alberto non-tendered.

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In that sense, the business of replacing major league players at those pivotal spots isn’t a new one for the Orioles. It’s one that Hyde feels will take a lot on and off the field.

“I feel confident in our front office and how they’re constructing our roster,” Hyde said Monday. “I feel good about the young players that are going to get more at-bats because of losing some of these guys, and I think we’re moving forward with a younger club that we’re excited about, the talent level that we have guys coming through our system with.”

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Speaking last week, general manager and executive vice president Mike Elias noted that there were several different routes the Orioles could go to fill those gaps. For example, new infielder Yolmer Sánchez, a Gold Glove-winning second baseman, could get looks at shortstop in spring training. Additionally, he said the team is looking at both free agents who would be blessed with a starting role come spring training as well as trade or free-agent candidates who aren’t yet established but would still be leaders for the job.

Elias also said some of the candidates could be utility types more commonly associated with second base or third base but who have the capability to play shortstop regularly despite not having had that opportunity.

Each archetype provides some intriguing options to fill out the Orioles’ infield, and Hyde is right in that the internal options might hold some worthy solutions as well. Here’s a breakdown of who could fit the mold for each.

The actual, good shortstops

According to Baseball-Reference, 33 of the free agents on the market this year have previous experience playing shortstop in the big leagues. Just 14 of those are considered primarily shortstops over their career, and some of those are long beyond their shortstop days (think Asdrubel Cabrera).

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The actual list of veteran free agents — the Iglesias types — available this offseason is a short one, and considering the importance of the shortstop position, it’s fair to say those players aren’t in the Orioles’ price range, even in a depressed market.

The headliners are Didi Gregorius, Andrelton Simmons and Marcus Semien, though all of them are likely outside the Orioles’ price range and could command the multi-year deals that Elias said the team wasn’t yet in the position to give.

Villar is a free agent again, but it’s hard to see the sense in going back down that road, even at a bargain.

The not-exactly shortstop free agents

When Villar came to the Orioles, he did so nominally as a second baseman. It wasn’t long before he was playing more shortstop to accommodate other players around the diamond, and there are candidates to do so for the Orioles in 2021 as well.

Players such as Marwin González, a former Houston Astros Rule 5 draft pick who has played shortstop but is more a utility player than a regular at one position, could fit Elias’ mold of someone who is capable but hasn’t gotten the chance.

González last played shortstop meaningfully in 2018 and split time between second base and third base in 2020 with the Minnesota Twins. Cesar Hernández, a longtime Philadelphia Phillies infielder who spent 2020 with the Cleveland Indians, could similarly move from a primary second base role in that profile.

Other utility players in free agency with shortstop experience include Charlie Culberson, Enrique Hernández, Ryan Goins and Freddy Galvis. Plenty of these utility types also have outfield experience, but such cover on an Orioles team that goes three deep on the major league outfield depth chart at each spot isn’t needed that much.

The younger, unestablished free agent

Adding a younger, high-pedigree free agent would be a great move for an Orioles club just trying to add talent at all levels as the revamped minor league pipeline pushes players towards Camden Yards at a methodical pace.

Last year’s signing of pitcher Kohl Stewart fit that mold, even if his opting out because of COVID-19 hampered that experiment.

There aren’t as many candidates on the infield this year. Dawel Lugo, formerly of the Detroit Tigers, and Erick Mejia, formerly of the Kansas City Royals, will be in their age-26 seasons in 2021 after spending several years with little offensive production while playing second base and third base with those clubs.

Lugo, though, has some track record of hitting in the high minors that could make him more enticing.

Former Tampa Bay Rays infielder Daniel Robertson didn’t get much run with the San Francisco Giants last year but isn’t far removed from a 122 OPS+ season in 2018 for the Rays. He played equal amounts of second base, third base, and shortstop with the Rays before he was bought by San Francisco in August.

Most intriguing in this group of unestablished free agents is a former top prospect in baseball in Jurickson Profar. Injuries have kept him from establishing himself, but he’s found some success at the plate in recent years. The problem is he hasn’t played shortstop consistently since 2018, although Semien in Oakland in 2019 and Fernando Tatis Jr. in 2020 with the Padres are worthy players to defer that position to.

If the Orioles think he can still play the infield and he isn’t priced out of their market, he might be the best example of one of those possible breakout free agents.

The upside trades

On the infield more than other spots, it’s easy for a player to get lost in the big league shuffle and not realize his potential quickly. For starters, many top major league infielders are signed as Latin American amateurs, and the requirement to add the best ones to the 40-man roster for Rule 5 protection purposes early in their careers start their roster clocks quickly. It’s also a hard spot for contenders to allow young players to grow into a major league role at.

Judging the market in this space, though, isn’t easy. There have been 45 rookies who have played shortstop since the start of the 2018 season, and the Orioles have played more than almost everyone else. Their four include Engelb Vielma, Richie Martin, Ramón Urías and Andrew Velazquez. Only the Toronto Blue Jays have used more rookies at shortstop, and Bo Bichette, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Santiago Espinal all seem like pieces they’d rather keep. Another among their young shortstops, Richard Ureña, cycled through Orioles camp as a waiver claim but didn’t stick.

The perpetually rebuilding Pittsburgh Pirates have former first-round picks Cole Tucker and Kevin Newman on their roster, with Tucker playing the outfield in 2020 out of need. Perhaps one of the Orioles’ actual outfielders on the fringes in 2021 could be a natural swap for one of these players.

That’s just one example, and certainly other clubs who have arbitration-eligible infielders with upside and younger players who could replace them might be hearing from Elias soon as well. Either way, this is an option that’s more opaque in forecasting but could be the clearest path to actual excitement on the Orioles infield this spring and beyond.

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Internal options

It would be eye-opening for the Orioles to not bring in anyone to play shortstop, as Elias laid out several paths to add players at the position.

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The Orioles could also cover the infield with who’s on the roster now, a proposition that will feature plenty of platoons.

For the non-first base infield spots at present, the Orioles have Rio Ruiz, Sánchez, Martin, Pat Valaika, Rylan Bannon and Urías on the roster.

That’s a very right-handed hitting group, but Sánchez is a switch-hitter with a little more success from the left side. Valaika, Bannon and Martin all have recent track records of hitting lefties better than righties.

Even if there are no more additions, there might only be room for two of Martin, Valaika, Bannon and Urías on the roster, with Martin and Valaika likely to have an edge for their shortstop backgrounds.

Hyde noted that the moves the Orioles made would open up spots for younger players, and it would certainly apply if Martin or Bannon played more as a result. Even Urías counts for that.

For consistency’s sake, though, not supplementing this group would likely leave the infield being a cause for concern in spring training.

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