During his panel Saturday at FanFest on implementing analytics across baseball operations, Orioles assistant general manager Sig Mejdal quipped that he didn’t know the number of analysts that was appropriate for a major league team to have, but he knew zero wasn’t right, either.
That philosophy seems to be extending to infielders this offseason for executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias and Mejdal, who have spent the offseason working to solidify the team’s infield depth n the major league roster.
More than any other spot on the diamond, Elias has had to address a dearth of major league level talent on the infield since he took over. The outfield is set with young major leaguers Cedric Mullins and Anthony Santander, plus prospects DJ Stewart, Austin Hays, Yusniel Díaz and Ryan McKenna, all eventually vying for time with Trey Mancini, who is entrenched in left field. The entire major league pitching staff from last year is back, and young catchers Chance Sisco and Austin Wynns will get a chance to make it work on their own.
But on the infield, even with Renato Núñez impressing in the second half last year and Jonathan Villar establishing himself as a possible dynamic lineup piece after his July 31 trade from the Milwaukee Brewers, the roster at the end of last season was quite thin.
Engelb Vielma and Breyvic Valera were both on the 40-man roster but injured, Tim Beckham was mostly serving as the designated hitter with others getting chances to play the field, Jace Peterson was in the mix, and Steve Wilkerson was trying to make an impression after an uneven season.
Only Wilkerson remains on the roster as camp is set to begin in mid-February. Peterson and Vielma are still in the minor league system after being knocked off the roster, Beckham wasn’t tendered a contract and signed with the Seattle Mariners, and Valera was dealt earlier this month after being designated for assignment. The high minors were similarly purged of returning players.
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In their place at the top of the organizational depth chart are a group of waiver claims and Rule 5 draft selections that the Orioles can only realistically hope will provide an improved standard of defense. For many of them, anything on offense would be a bonus, at least for now.
The acquisitions began with minor league free agents Zach Vincej, Chris Bostick and later Sean Miller, continued with Rule 5 picks Richie Martin and Drew Jackson, and have included adding Rio Ruiz, Hanser Alberto, and Jack Reinheimer on waivers since then.
The sense of the major league acquisitions is evident. Almost every one of them can capably play more than one infield position. Ruiz could be a left-handed hitting complement to Núñez. Alberto and Reinheimer are players with at least some major league experience who can handle shortstop, with the latter having a minor league option still available.
If the Orioles are truly looking for something to pop in terms of a long-term player, it will likely be in one of their Rule 5 picks. Each had a breakout last year, with Martin batting .300 with 43 extra-base hits and 25 steals at Double-A Midland and Jackson batting .251 with an .804 OPS and 15 home runs for Double-A Tulsa.
With Martin at age 24 and Jackson at age 25, they aren’t much younger than the rest of the infielders brought in, but, as college draftees, haven’t made their major league debuts yet and are still unknown commodities at this level.
If the Orioles have their way, each will outplay the group of waiver claims and minor league invitees in spring training, play their way onto the major league roster, and grow along with a young roster into possible everyday roles.
The competition, however, will be plenty. Every other infielder who is getting a chance to make his major league mark on the Orioles’ unsettled roster will know the team will have to land on at least two players from off the radar to take north from Sarasota, Fla. The new front office’s biggest on-field task has been to populate that.