Wednesday’s surprising trade of shortstop José Iglesias and the decision not to tender a contract to second baseman Hanser Alberto leaves the Orioles with questions about who will replace Iglesias and Alberto.
Iglesias, who hit .373 with three home runs and 17 RBIs in 39 games with the Orioles in 2020, was traded to the Los Angeles Angels for two young right-handed pitchers, Jean Pinto and Garrett Stallings. Pinto, 19, pitched three games in the Dominican Summer League in 2019, and Stallings, 23, was the Angels’ fifth-round pick in 2019 and hasn’t pitched professionally.
One of those in line to replace Alberto is Yolmer Sánchez, who the Orioles claimed on waivers from the Chicago White Sox on October 30th. He won the Gold Glove at second base in 2019, and signed a reported $1 million contract for 2021 on Wednesday, the deadline day to tender contracts to those eligible for arbitration.
Sanchez has started 10 games at shortstop in his seven-season major league career. Pat Valaika, who also signed a 2021 contract on Wednesday, played some shortstop when Iglesias was on the injured list because of a left quadriceps injury. Valaika, who still has an option remaining, signed a split contract that will pay him $875,000 in the majors and $300,000 in the minors.
The Orioles also have Richie Martin, a 2018 Rule 5 draft pick who missed the 2020 season because of a broken left wrist, and utilityman Ramón Urias on the 40-man roster.
Executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias made it clear in a Wednesday night video conference call that the Orioles’ regular 2021 shortstop is probably not on the team at present.
“I think we’ve got work left to do there,” Elias said. “Part of the risk with a trade like this when it comes to the stability at the major league level that we desire is, we’re now looking for infield upgrades. There are a lot of good players out on the market, and we’ll have a chance to explore those. We’ll try to be opportunistic and smart again like when we found Iggy.
“It does make our job this offseason a little harder. I do feel like there’s going to be other moves necessitated because of this trade, but … it was more important to get the young pitching prospects back, and when we looked at the market, we figured we’d have some opportunity to reinforce the group that we already have on the roster.”
Iglesias was due to make $3.5 million in 2021, and Alberto was projected to make more than $2 million, and perhaps more if he went to arbitration.
More than a month into the free-agent market, business is slow in Major League Baseball, and Wednesday’s deadline flooded the market.
“We will monitor the market and do what we feel is the right fit for putting together a group at the major league level which helps us achieve our goal, which is continuing to take a step forward,” Elias said. “Get some more young talent in this organization, and see our young guys that hopefully will blossom into stars continue to improve and develop at the major league level.”
Elias raved about Stallings, who pitched for the University of Tennessee.
“I don’t know that I would trade our starting pitching in the minor leagues for anyone else’s,” Elias said. “This makes me feel even stronger that that might be the case.”
The acquisition of Pinto was important, too.
“We’re also still making up for the lack of a normal level of international signing activity level with this organization for a long time,” Elias said.
“When we do trades like this, we kind of try to get a young, international player tossed in anytime we can because we know we’re in arrears a bit with that age group and getting those guys that these other teams have been signing for the last three or four years. We haven’t been at that level, and that’s going to continue to sting for a few years.”
The decision not to tender a contract to Alberto, which came after the Orioles attempted to work out a trade, was difficult.
“It was an incredibly difficult decision,” Elias said. “On and off the field, he’s been so good … unfortunately, the arbitration system, the way it’s set up, there are a lot of arcane rules that I’m not sure fans can fully understand, but it puts boundaries around what we can do prior to this date.
“Our job is to study the market for baseball players and do the best we can within the market dynamics that exist. This offseason’s not over, and we’re going to continue to stay in touch with him because we know he’s such a great figure.”
In the last 12 days, the Orioles have designated for assignment, and later released, first baseman/designated hitter Renato Núñez, let go of Alberto and traded Iglesias. A year ago, the Orioles traded infielder Jonathan Villar to Miami for minor league left-hander Easton Lucas and starter Dylan Bundy to the Angels for four minor league right-handers.
“You get attached to the players when you have them,” Elias said. “It makes sense in every case when you’re able to, especially when you’re rebuilding, to try to see some long-term value coming back as these guys near the end of their stints with the team … we don’t feel we’re close to our ultimate goal … when you’re in that situation, this is what you do.”
When Elias came to the Orioles in November 2018, the team had lost a franchise record 115 games. In his first season as GM, the Orioles lost 108. In 2020’s shortened season, they went 25-35, and Elias doesn’t think the team is ready to contend in 2021.
“I think it’s accurate to say that we’re in the phase of accumulating talent,” he said. “Trying to rise to the top of young talent. We want to have the best young talent in baseball. I think we’re going to need that to compete in this division. The baseline that we have, while it’s improving, and improving rapidly, there’s still room to go.
“There will be a time when we flip the switch to maximizing wins biin the next given season, but it’s our judgment that we’re not there yet. This is not fun to subtract from your major league team, but that’s what you do when you’re below .500 and rebuilding, and we still are.”
Notes: Right-handed reliever Shawn Armstrong signed for $825,000. Trey Mancini and Anthony Santander are the only two Orioles who are eligible for arbitration and unsigned.
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