With the Orioles kicking off spring training next week in Sarasota, Florida, an uneventful offseason for the rebuilding club will at least begin to be about baseball again.
Their rebuilding project, which yielded 108 losses and a handful of memorable moments in 2019, continues with what’s expected to be a similar 2020 season. But as they wait for the fruits of their focus on player development to make it to the majors, there are plenty of opportunities to impress for the players in big league camp.
Each day this week, we’ll break down a position group that will get a chance to prove itself to executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias, manager Brandon Hyde and the rest of the front office and coaching staff when spring training begins, with the first workout for pitchers and catchers next Wednesday.
On Monday, it began with the catchers. Next up is the infield group, which is missing one of its key contributors from 2019 but might be deeper overall.
Who’s in camp?
Even with Jonathan Villar, one of the Orioles’ most productive position players (and certainly most impactful infielder), traded away in December to the Miami Marlins, the Orioles still have most of last year’s infield intact.
Chris Davis remains entrenched at first base with three years remaining on his $161 million contract, while batting leader Hanser Alberto, Richie Martin and Rio Ruiz are each back as well. So is Renato Núñez, who is nominally a corner infielder but spent most of his time in 2019 as the Orioles’ designated hitter.
As far as new faces go, the Orioles signed veteran glove man José Iglesias to take over for Villar as their primary shortstop and have claimed infielder Pat Valaika off waivers twice — most recently from the Arizona Diamondbacks — to provide some depth. Same goes for Richard Ureña Jr., a waiver claim who comes to the Orioles from the Toronto Blue Jays with youth and the ability to play shortstop on his side.
None of them have the buzz that the earliest roster addition to the infield this offseason brings, though. Well-regarded prospect Ryan Mountcastle, who won the International League Most Valuable Player award last year at Triple-A Norfolk and has hit at every stop in the minors, was added to the roster in November and will continue his work at first base as he looks to find a major league home.
Those players, combined with the nonroster invitees, will make for some deep lines at each position during drills early in camp. Both José Rondón and Dilson Herrera bring major league experience and positional versatility, while Malquin Canelo was signed to provide depth up the middle after reaching minor league free agency with the Philadelphia Phillies.
Prospects Rylan Bannon and Mason McCoy also will be in camp, representing the closest-to-the-majors infield depth the Orioles have at a thin spot.
Villar’s departure is certainly going to impact the Orioles more than any other this year, even if his style of play wasn’t always the most reliable. He seemed more focused and consistent in the last two months of the season after a July 31 trade didn’t materialize for him, and while the Orioles will miss that, he really wasn’t a part of the club’s future. (Neither is Iglesias, but he isn’t blocking anyone either.)
This time last year, the Orioles had a camp roster that showed how much they needed to bolster the infield. They claimed Ruiz, Alberto and Jack Reinheimer, and had Jace Peterson, Zach Vincej and Christopher Bostick as depth.
Peterson spent some time with the Orioles, but the rest of the players who plied their trade at Norfolk aren’t back in 2020 as the roster churn continues.
Who’s making the team?
There’s certainly some intrigue, but not necessarily among those who will get the bulk of the playing time.
Either Davis, Núñez or Trey Mancini, an outfielder most of last season, will man first base until Mountcastle is deemed ready, at which point he’ll be added from Norfolk to join that mix. Iglesias will be the everyday shortstop, Alberto can split time between second base and third, as he did last year, and Ruiz will get the other half of the third base platoon, assuming the Orioles see his second-half improvement last year as legitimate.
The last spot (or two) will go to a utility-type player who can play second base when Alberto isn’t and give the Orioles some bench options. Alberto’s presence means the ability to play shortstop isn’t a priority for a bench player, since he can fill in if Iglesias is out.
Ureña doesn’t have the offensive track record in the minors that Valaika does, but their differing skill sets might give Hyde more options. Martin is also a candidate for a bench role, but the Orioles might want to get him regular playing time in the minors to see if he can further develop his bat.
Who could change that?
Minor league invitees such as Rondón and Herrera both have the major league experience to provide some defensive steadiness, but they’d have to be added to the roster, and that’s tight come the end of March. Ureña doesn’t have a minor league option, but Valaika does, so there’s flexibility there.
Ideally, one or two of these players will distinguish themselves in camp. It seems like Valaika, Martin, Herrera and Rondón are in similar positions, with Ureña’s lack of minor league options putting him in a different category.
Who’s the future?
Before the Orioles drafted Adley Rutschman to represent the future at catcher, that position competed with the infield as the greatest deficiency in the Orioles’ farm system.
Mountcastle remains a potential impact bat, though playing first base or the corner outfield will raise the offensive standards and put a little more stress on him to produce at the plate. McCoy, a shortstop, and Bannon, who has played third base and second since the Orioles acquired him in 2018, are the closest to the majors at those spots, but questions remain as to what kind of future they can carve out.
Beneath them, the top infield prospect in the organization is Adam Hall, the shortstop/second baseman who spent all of 2019 at Low-A Delmarva and hit .298 with a .780 OPS, 31 extra-base hits and 33 steals. He’s a do-it-all type with gap power who many view as the kind of player who can will himself to the big leagues. Hall spent most of 2019 playing alongside 2018 first-day draft pick Cadyn Grenier, a glove-first shortstop who made it to High-A Frederick last year.
Those two, plus 2019 draftees Gunnar Henderson and Joey Ortiz, have changed the complexion of the infield on the farm in the past few seasons. But with the Orioles selecting No. 2 overall in this June’s draft, Vanderbilt’s Austin Martin and New Mexico State’s Nick Gonzales could fit well and be able to climb quickly to the majors if the Orioles go that route.
Next Tuesday: Pitchers and catchers report
Feb. 16: Position players report
Feb. 17: First full-squad workout
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Feb. 23: First exhibition game vs. Atlanta Braves in North Port, Fla.