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Two weeks into season, Orioles’ unproductive infield could be getting shake-up it needs | ANALYSIS

When the Orioles began their spring training crash course at second base for Rio Ruiz, it was above all else a way to get their best bats in the lineup on a nightly basis.

Ruiz was giving way at third base to free-agent signing Maikel Franco, and with neither Ramón Urías nor Pat Valaika seeming like an everyday option at second after Yolmer Sánchez was released, it made sense to at the very least try it.

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Two weeks into what will be a long season, one that certainly offers plenty of time for the trajectory of the infield to change, the infield gives the impression of a group that either hasn’t found its step or doesn’t offer much upside to get excited about.

As a group, the Orioles infielders — Trey Mancini, Freddy Galvis, Ruiz, Franco, Urías and Valaika — entered Thursday’s doubleheader batting .170 with a .554 OPS. They’ve struck out in 27.3% of their at-bats. And while the group has had some isolated rough moments defensively, it’s certainly not glove work at the level to make that lack of production easy to stomach.

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Wednesday’s postponed game would have seen the Orioles with their eighth different infield alignment in 12 games as manager Brandon Hyde was giving a frustrated Mancini a night off while playing Franco at first base, Ruiz at third and Urías at second.

The first-choice grouping seems to be Mancini at first base, Ruiz at second base, Galvis at shortstop and Franco at third. Each has had glimpses of productivity to look back on over the first two weeks, but none consistently.

That status quo seems to possibly be changing with Urías scheduled to start for the third straight game after being tapped at second base for both games of Tuesday’s doubleheader. Hyde has been impressed with him in limited looks, and while he had one hit in seven at-bats entering Tuesday, he had two in six trips — including a home run and a walk-off single — in the doubleheader as he continues to make an impression on his manager.

Hyde said Urías was a “solid defender” in his appearances in 2021, and “plays a really nice second base” with the ability to play shortstop mixed in as well.

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“What Ramón does offensively is he uses the whole field and drives the ball the other way,” Hyde said. “You saw the power there in that first game with the opposite-field homer. I did see that at the end of the year last year, so that’s intriguing for me is a guy who can stay on the baseball, use the middle of the field. And really his strength is that right-center field gap, so he showed that yesterday with that base hit up the middle, kind of pulling his hands inside, as well as showing the power he has in the first game. You don’t see that very much anymore, is a guy who really has an opposite-field approach, and I really like that about him, in that he is able to cover the outer part of the plate and hurt guys to the opposite side.”

Ruiz, on the other hand, has taken well to shortstop, with just one misplay that he tag-teamed on with Urías for a collective head slapper in Sunday’s loss. But he is hitless in his past 16 plate appearances and is batting .125 with a .441 OPS.

Hyde said Ruiz is “just a little bit underneath the baseball right now” and trying to take shorter swings with a more direct path to the ball, but is “just off to a little bit of a tough start.”

“When you get off to a tough start, you try to do a little bit too much,” Hyde said. “He’s kind of in the same funk as a lot of our guys, where they’re not letting the at-bat happen, where they’re trying to force things and trying to drive the baseball instead of really relaxing and focusing on getting a good pitch to hit and staying in the middle of the field, staying short to the baseball. He’s just trying to do too much right now.

“We’ve seen Rio in good moments also the last couple years where he can go left-on-left and go to left and center, and he can hit a homer to right field. He can do some things. Now, it’s just about being a little more consistent. I just want him to take some pressure off himself and relax. Like a lot of our guys, they’re really putting a lot of pressure on themselves offensively.”

In the same way that good at-bats are contagious, so too seems to be the heavy shoulders that Orioles hitters are carrying to the plate in these first two weeks. Once tough starts become tough months, it might be time for the Orioles to shake the deck a bit.

Urías getting more regular at-bats, even against right-handed pitching as he has the last few days, is a start — and possibly a warranted one. He’s two weeks younger than Ruiz, but has just 38 big league plate appearances. Urías’ projections, based on a strong high-minors resume in both Mexico and in affiliated ball, have a little more upside as well.

If he puts together a good run of games, it might become a situation where he can take time at both second base and shortstop, with Ruiz and Galvis ceding some time to him. Other than Mancini, no one’s playing time is really safe on the Orioles’ infield. The flux of the first two weeks both shows why that’s the case, and why the shuffling has been necessary.

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