An Orioles infield that began the year with designs on being functional but not much more has been transformed into one that has a lot more to offer for the future.
Even with dynamic infielder Jorge Mateo out this week with a back injury, the Orioles’ infield has been far from the forgettable group at the bottom of the lineup that it was for most of the season. That’s thanks to another hot stretch for Ramón Urías and the team’s decision early this week to bring up rookie Jahmai Jones and release everyday third baseman Maikel Franco.
Urías, playing shortstop in Mateo’s absence, has been among the team’s hottest hitters of late — his second such stretch of the season. In his first stretch as their primary shortstop after Freddy Galvis went out to with a quadriceps injury, Urías hit .300 with a .791 OPS in 30 games.
A groin injury, however, meant he was in and out of the lineup for over a week earlier this month. But Friday night’s 6-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays was Urías’ sixth multi-hit game in his last eight; he’s batting .448 (13-for-29) with a 1.343 OPS and a pair of home runs in that span. Despite having just 238 plate appearances entering Friday’s game, he was second on the team among position players in wins above replacement (WAR), according to FanGraphs, with 1.6.
“He’s trying to play through a sore leg and the bat speed might not have quite been there,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “But he’s feeling healthier now, and I think we’re seeing results.
“I think it’s part of being a big league player, too. If you look around the league, there’s a lot of guys playing banged up and playing with nagging things. That’s part of developing in the big leagues also, understanding that you’re not going to feel 100-percent probably after the first week of the season. Sometimes, you have to play when you’re a little bit sore. Both [Urías and Anthony Santander] have done that. I give them a lot of credit.”
Soon, Hyde will hope, Mateo will be able to battle through the back injury he suffered Tuesday landing awkwardly on first base, and the intriguing waiver claim from the San Diego Padres will be back in the fold for the Orioles at shortstop.
Mateo, a former top-100 prospect who spent the past two seasons on the Padres’ bench, is batting .356 with a .879 OPS in 17 games with the Orioles. Both Mateo, 26, and Urías, 27, aren’t exactly young anymore, but they can carve out roles with their versatility and offensive potential as the team’s young infield prospects like Jordan Westburg, Joey Ortiz, Terrin Vavra and Gunnar Henderson climb through the minors.
Jones, who turned 24 earlier this month, is the first of the team’s infield prospects who were part of a concerted effort by executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias and his staff to strengthen the organization’s talent base on the infield.
Acquired this offseason in a trade with the Los Angeles Angels for right-hander Alex Cobb, Jones had several hot spells at Triple-A Norfolk, but was having a tough August before turning it around the week before his call-up.
He has a single and a double in 17 at-bats in his first four games with the Orioles, striking out seven times.
“He’s athletic,” Hyde said. “Still learning the position at second base, so there’s a lot of teaching going on there. He doesn’t have many innings at second base prior to the last couple years. He’s got some bat speed. Just missed a ball to center field tonight. He just needs at-bats and innings defensively.”
This group, with Kelvin Gutiérrez deputizing at third base with Mateo out and Urías moved to shortstop, is far different from the one the Orioles began the season with.
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Franco was signed in spring training to be the everyday third baseman, with Galvis at shortstop and a combination of Rio Ruiz, Urías and Pat Valaika at second base. Ruiz was designated for assignment and claimed off waivers by the Colorado Rockies, Galvis was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies at the July 30 deadline and Valaika was outrighted off the roster.