When Brandon Hyde took the Orioles job at the winter meetings late last year in Las Vegas, his new boss Mike Elias had just floated the notion that Jonathan Villar was the team's everyday shortstop.
With Tim Beckham not offered a contract in early December, such was the gap atop the depth chart at that crucial position that the Orioles were planning to pull the man who stepped in seamlessly at second base after he was traded for Jonathan Schoop from his best position to fill another need.
But moves that came that same week — the selection of shortstop Richie Martin from the Oakland Athletics in the Rule 5 draft and the trade for the Philadelphia Phillies' Rule 5 pick, Drew Jackson, moments later — began a series of transactions in which Elias and the front office sought to rectify that. Hanser Alberto and Jack Reinheimer joined the organization as waiver claims. Former World Series winner and All-Star Alcides Escobar signed early in camp, all of which has forced Villar back to second base.
"I feel good about it," Hyde said.
In a camp defined by competition in Hyde's mind, that has bred particular success among the shortstop candidates. Escobar went 0-for-3 Sunday, but has three hits and a pair of walks in 13 plate appearances while playing strong defense. Both he and Martin have played exclusively shortstop, with Martin reaching base in nine of his 19 plate appearances with two doubles and a pair of walks.
Though at different stages of their careers, they would be just as valuable to the Orioles for their steady defense as anything else. Escobar was one of the best shortstops in the league in his prime, and Hyde likes what he sees in Martin's potential on that front, too.
"I just like the way he makes the routine play, to be honest with you, and at times, he'll make the really good play," Hyde said. "But I love the way the ball goes in his glove. He's a real accurate thrower. He's just really shown he's a real sound defender so far in camp, and we've talked a lot about our defense and the importance of defense going into the season and how we're going to prioritize defense, and Richie is doing everything that we've asked from a defensive standpoint.
"He's an aggressive swinger, too, and he's had some really good at-bats and he's driven some baseballs in all parts of the field, and he's strong. I think the more he just gets comfortable, the more he's getting acclimated, it seems like he's getting better as he goes along."
Jackson has also been impressive at the plate, with six hits and a pair of walks in 19 plate appearances while driving in the go-ahead run with a bases loaded sacrifice fly Sunday against the Detroit Tigers coming off the bench. He’s moved from shortstop to second base to center field, sometimes playing multiple spots in the same game. Hyde has been excited by the fact he can do it all, which will make him a roster asset should the Orioles keep him around.
“I think that we have a lot of guys who can play at a lot of different spots, and it allows us to really see guys," Hyde said. "Drew Jackson played center yesterday, second base a couple innings, goes into short today and is playing well at all positions."
Alberto got a similar treatment in his Orioles debut Monday at Minnesota, when he played second base after splitting time at shortstop and second base with the San Francisco Giants. The Giants claimed him off waivers from the Orioles earlier in camp, and they got him back Friday. And while Reinheimer was designated for assignment off the roster when the team signed pitcher Nate Karns, he has four hits in 11 spring training at-bats as a non-roster invitee.
Distinguishing from the group will be one of the most significant tasks for Elias and Hyde as camp winds down, with Escobar a non-roster free agent who would need to be added to the roster for Opening Day and Martin and Jackson each required to be on the active roster all year as part of their Rule 5 stipulations. Alberto is also out of minor league options and finds himself behind the pack in terms of familiarity, even if Hyde is excited to have him back.
The pending decisions mean the fact that Hyde can get multiple players in this group on the field at once will be valuable to seeing as much of them as possible.
"I'm feeling good about our versatility," Hyde said. "I think we have a lot of options, and I think it's going to be a great competition these last few weeks."