Despite the thought that the $3.5 million price tag on the 2021 option in shortstop José Iglesias' contract would possibly prompt the Orioles to decline it, executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said Monday that it played little factor in the club’s eventual choice to exercise it.
“It was not a difficult decision,” Elias said. "José was tremendous for us in a very limited period of time, but he’s got a track record dating back beyond that. I think he’s a perfect fit for what we need right now. I think if he had not had the quad strain that he had, I think he would’ve been in the MVP conversation last year for the 60-game season had he played a lot of shortstop.
“I don’t think that anyone in the organization was surprised that we exercised that option, and we’re really looking forward to having him back next year.”
The Orioles' decision over the weekend to pick up the option likely ensures Iglesias, who hit .373/.400/.556 in 39 games, will be their starting shortstop next season. Who will play on either side of him, and who he’ll be throwing the ball to at first base, remains less clear.
The same day the Orioles exercised Iglesias' option, they made a pair of other moves that could directly impact their 2021 starting infield: They claimed Yolmer Sánchez, the American League’s Gold Glove second baseman in 2019, on waivers from the Chicago White Sox, and they activated Trey Mancini, who was diagnosed with colon cancer in March, from the 60-day injured list.
Although Sunday’s activation is a welcome sign after all Mancini has gone through in recent months, the move was largely procedural; the alternative was for the Orioles to remove him from the 40-man roster. There’s still no guarantee Mancini will be ready come the spring, though Elias suggested Monday that the current circumstances are a best-case scenario given the timeline.
“We’ve all got our fingers crossed,” Elias said. “I think it’s gone as well as it possibly could’ve gone since we got that horrible news back in March. I think any of us would’ve traded anything to get to Nov. 2 and be where we’re at with him right now. He’s doing well. He’s getting his strength back. He’s slowly getting into baseball-ish type activities, and it’s been incredible. We have great doctors and access to just incredible medical resources here with the Orioles, and I think it’s helping him get the best outcome he possibly could, but he’s still got some work to do.”
Should Mancini need more time before a return to baseball, other candidates to play first base include Ryan Mountcastle, Renato Núñez and Pat Valaika, with Chris Davis a possibility for the occasional start. When Mancini was the Most Valuable Oriole in 2019, he primarily played right field, but the Orioles' collection of young outfield talent, including Mountcastle, could force him to the dirt.
The Orioles' primary designated hitter in 2019, Núñez started 28 of the Orioles' 60 games this season at first base, more than double any other player. But a full season of Mountcastle and the return of Mancini could thrust Núñez back into the DH role, assuming Baltimore carries him through the arbitration process.
Valaika, a surprise producer who hit eight home runs in 2020, is also eligible for arbitration, as are Sánchez and Hanser Alberto, who both could be Baltimore’s 2021 second baseman. It’s possible the Orioles will decide against paying both infielders the raises they would be due through arbitration.
Both are 28 and have played mostly second and third in their careers while dabbling at short. Each has a career high of 12 home runs. Sánchez, a switch-hitter, is a career .245/.300/.360 batter with a .660 OPS in parts of seven seasons; in parts of five seasons, the right-handed Alberto has a .678 OPS courtesy of a .278/.300/.377 batting line, though he has made his mark against left-handed pitching.
But Sánchez, as his Gold Glove indicates, is the superior defender, and as the Orioles continue to introduce young pitchers to the majors, having a middle infield behind them of Iglesias and Sánchez is a thrilling thought.
“Yolmer Sánchez is a very good player, and I can see him helping us in a number of ways,” Elias said. "He can move around all three infield spots. He’s a plus defender, certainly at second and third, and probably a pretty good shortstop. We have a little less info to go on there, but from what we’ve seen, we think he can help at that position, as well. I could also see him battling for a primary job, so there’s a lot of ways that he fits and helps the team.
“That said, this is the time of year where interesting players come on waivers and teams claim them, and there’s a lot of offseason left. We’ll just have to see where this lands, but when he did appear on waivers, we were very interested and excited to claim him.”
Given the experience each has at third base, the Orioles could instead choose to play Alberto and Sánchez at the same time.
Rio Ruiz has started 139 games at third base for the Orioles over the past two seasons, and in that time, he’s hit .229/.299/.393. A former Elias draft pick for the Houston Astros who was one of the first players he acquired after becoming Baltimore’s GM, Ruiz had six home runs and a .915 OPS a third of the way into the 60-game 2020 season. The rest of the year, he managed half as many homers with a .628 OPS while his defense slipped as well.
Alberto effectively platooned with Ruiz in 2019, while Sánchez was Chicago’s primary third baseman the year before he became a Gold Glove second baseman. Valaika and Núñez also have experience at third, though the Orioles seem to view the latter as only a first baseman or DH. But Núñez has led the team in home runs each of the past two years, playing into such a role.
Beyond Iglesias at short, the infield remains in flux. Although the lack of clarity isn’t ideal, the Orioles at least have options, something that excites Elias.
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“We’ll continue to monitor ways to fortify our infield,” Elias said. “But we have a lot of really interesting internal candidates on our roster there now.”