Orioles face middle infield decisions; New start times a hit; Eller's role might change - BaltimoreBaseball.com

Rich Dubroff

Orioles face middle infield decisions; New start times a hit; Eller’s role might change

Nowhere in the Orioles’ lineup is more uncertain than the middle infield. Last season, manager Brandon Hyde used either Richie Martin or Jonathan Villar at shortstop in every game while either Villar or Hanser Alberto played second.

Villar played in all 162 games, and with a week to go before the December 2 deadline for 2020 contract offers, his future continues to be uncertain.

The Orioles could offer him a contract and risk taking him to arbitration. MLBTradeRumors estimates that Villar could receive $10.4 million in his final season before he can file for free agency.

Villar had his best season as a major leaguer in 2019, hitting .274 with 24 home runs and 40 steals. However, the Orioles might not want to spend that much this year. They could offer him a contract next week and then try to trade him before arbitration season, or they could hold on to him and try to deal him next summer.

They also could elect to not offer him a contract, making him a free agent.

If Villar isn’t back, that doesn’t necessarily mean Martin, who was a Rule 5 draft choice last December, will inherit the job at shortstop.

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The Orioles had to keep Martin all season or offer him to the Oakland Athletics, from whom he was drafted.

He hit .208 with a .260 on-base percentage and slugged .322 for a weak .581 OPS.

In the field, he committed 10 errors in 117 games at shortstop, although he made a number of exceptional plays. Villar made 12 errors in 97 games at shortstop.

Executive Vice President/General Manager Mike Elias has said that finding middle infielders would be a priority this offseason.

Martin played the 2018 season for Midland, Oakland’s Double-A affiliate, and he hit .300 and had a healthy .807 OPS, but since he struggled offensively for the Orioles, some time at Triple-A might help.

Interestingly, Martin played his best in September, a time when rookies are supposed to be hitting the wall. He hit .379 and in 17 games.

Martin hit .284 in the second half after hitting just .166 in the first half.

Martin also showed his athleticism on the basepaths, stealing 10 bases while getting thrown out just once.

Martin didn’t show much power, driving in only 23 runs.

Although the Orioles drafted a number of middle infielders last June, most notably 18-year-old shortstop Gunnar Henderson, there aren’t any infielders who played for Triple-A Norfolk or Double-A Bowie on the 40-man roster.

The best infielder prospects, Cadyn Grenier and Adam Hall, appear to be multiple levels away from playing for the Orioles.

Grenier, a teammate of Adley Rutschman at Oregon, was the 37th overall pick in the 2018 draft, and he hit just .208 at High-A Frederick after he returned to Low-A Delmarva for the beginning of 2019.

Hall, who played with Grenier for the first half of last season with the Shorebirds, hit .298 and had a .780 OPS for Delmarva.

He’s expected to start 2020 with Frederick, and it’s possible Grenier stays back there, too.

Some fans were intrigued by Mason McCoy, who began 2019 with the Keys, and after hitting .379 in 27 games, was promoted to Bowie.

McCoy had a hot start for the Baysox, but hit just .214 after July 1, and had only one home run.

He has defensive limitations, and isn’t considered among the Orioles’ top prospects.

If Villar isn’t back, and Martin begins next season with Norfolk, the Orioles’ starting Opening Day shortstop will come from elsewhere.

New starting times meet with approval: As disappointed as many fans were over the cancellation of FanFest, it seems that another decision the Orioles recently made has been popular with fans.

The announcement that the Orioles will begin weekday night games before Memorial Day and after Labor Day at 6:35 p.m. might not increase attendance greatly, but it shows the club is listening to its fans.

With the average time of game at three hours, five minutes, the earlier starts mean that most games will end before 10 p.m., and encourage families to attend occasional weeknight games while school is in session.

It also will help workers in downtown Baltimore who may want to attend games will friends and colleagues and want to get home at a reasonable hour.

The Orioles are adding some weekday afternoon games, too. Excluding Opening Day, there will be five day games, but none after July 22.

There also will be more 4:05 p.m. starts on Saturdays, nine in all. Just four Saturday games will begin at 7:05 p.m.

Eller as minor league hitting coordinator? The Orioles haven’t named a successor to Jeff Manto, who was fired as the team’s minor league hitting coordinator.

Perhaps Tom Eller, who coached Delmarva in the season’s first two months and then moved on to Short Season Aberdeen, could get the job.

Eller, the longtime coach at Harford Community College, tweeted the following on Friday: “The last three days have been incredible working with our new minor league hitting coaches. I can’t wait to get this thing rolling!”

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