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Orioles pick up veteran shortstop José Iglesias’ $3.5 million option for 2021

The Orioles announced Sunday that they have exercised the 2021 option in veteran shortstop José Iglesias’ contract, bringing him back for next season for $3.5 million.

The decision quashes any concerns that the financial uncertainties brought on by the coronavirus pandemic would prompt the Orioles to instead send Iglesias, who in the shortened season was their leader in batting average, on-base percentage, OPS and doubles, into free agency with a $500,000 buyout.

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Last offseason, Iglesias, who turns 31 in January, signed a one-year, $2.5 million deal that included the option, and by most measures, he exceeded that value. Known more for his glove than his bat throughout his career, Iglesias hit .373/.400/.556 for Baltimore while starting no lower than third in manager Brandon Hyde’s lineup.

But a collection of injuries, primarily a nagging left quadriceps issue, limited Iglesias to only 39 games in the 60-game campaign. He made only 22 starts at shortstop, and the Orioles went 11-11 in those games; they were 14-24 otherwise, with Iglesias the starting designated hitter in 13 of those games.

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Only five major leaguers with as many plate appearances as Iglesias' 150 struck out less often than he did. No player put the ball in play as often, meaning they had a higher percentage of his plate appearances end in something other than a walk, strikeout or home run, than Iglesias. Yet, his .407 average on balls in play was the highest in the American League and one of only four in baseball that was at least .400.

His average exit velocity of 86.4 mph and hard-hit rate, the percentage of balls put in play at 95 mph or harder, of 37.1% were his highest since 2015, when Statcast data was introduced. But those two figures still rank in the bottom half among the nearly 200 hitters who homered or put the ball in play at least 100 times in 2020.

That is to say, it’s fair to expect some regression in 2021. Before posting a .956 OPS this year, Iglesias' career high was .735 in 2013, when he finished second in Rookie of the Year voting in a season split between the Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers. His .556 slugging percentage marked the second straight year he has surpassed .400 in that measure after previously not doing so in his first seven seasons. But in 2019, his .407 slugging percentage for the Cincinnati Reds included 11 homers, with nine coming at the extremely hitter-friendly Great American Ball Park.

But $3.5 million is somewhat of a steal if Iglesias is able to continue that production in some form while adding the leadership that he displayed in the Orioles' clubhouse during his first year in Baltimore, though the possibility remains the Orioles explore a trade involving Iglesias this offseason.

His presence, though, would benefit a team that lacks alternatives at shortstop. Richie Martin played 117 games at the position as a rookie in 2019, but a broken wrist suffered during the team’s preseason training camp cost him the 2020 season. With Iglesias in the fold, he was expected to learn from the veteran while taking a utility infielder role. Before the pandemic, he instead might have headed to Triple-A Norfolk to be the starting shortstop there while grooming a bat that produced a .581 OPS in 2019.

Andrew Velazquez and Pat Valaika combined for 34 starts at shortstop in 2020, but each had their warts. Although he offered defensive versatility and speed, Velazquez managed only a .480 OPS and earlier this week was outrighted to Norfolk. After being claimed on waivers, lost on waivers and claimed again over the offseason, Valaika was a surprise offensive contributor with eight home runs and a .791 OPS, but his five errors as a shortstop were more than all other Orioles made at the position among them.

Other internal options included Hanser Alberto, Ramón Urías and the recently claimed Yolmer Sánchez, though all are viewed more as second basemen than shortstops. Alberto, Sánchez and Valaika are among the Orioles' arbitration-eligible players.

Executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias, who is expected to address the decision Monday, said during his end-of-the-season media session that the pandemic has hampered teams' abilities to budget and plan in ways they normally would. With fans unable to attend games through the regular season, teams' revenues have reportedly suffered, and the impact has been seen throughout the industry; last month, the Orioles laid off or furloughed nearly 50 employees, one of numerous organizations to make such moves.

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