In the Orioles’ final game of the 2021 season, Pat Valaika was the starting second baseman, Richie Martin the shortstop and Kelvin Gutiérrez was at third. Since Mike Elias took over as the team’s executive vice president/general manager in November 2018, the team has settled for a patchwork infield.
That’s expected to change, but not at the beginning of the 2022 season.
Elias has drafted a number of infielders during the past three years, and many of those are at the Instructional League camp that began at the Ed Smith Stadium complex in Sarasota, Florida on Monday.
Two of them, Gunnar Henderson and Jordan Westburg, might be ready to join the club toward the end of next season as the Orioles try to build from the ground up. In the meantime, they appear to have short-term options.
Besides Gutiérrez, Martin and Valaika, the Orioles ended 2021 with Jorge Mateo and Ramón Urias on the injured list. They also had Jahmai Jones and Tyler Nevin on the active roster. Jones is a second baseman. Nevin can play third and first and the corner outfield positions.
They also have Rylan Bannon, who was added to the 40-man roster a year ago but had a disappointing season at Triple-A Norfolk and never merited a call to the Orioles. Bannon can play third and second.
The surest bet to return is Urías, who seemed to be on the 40-man bubble last offseason but survived and ended up hitting .279 with seven home runs and 38 RBIs in 85 games. Urías had a .774 OPS and a 2.0 WAR (Wins Above Replacement).
During the last month of the season, Urías had an upper leg injury that ended his year prematurely. Urías started 40 games at shortstop, 29 at second and 10 at third.
Little was known about Mateo when he was acquired on waivers from San Diego on August 5th. He started 15 times at shortstop and 12 times at second. He also started in left and right field.
Mateo’s speed is what stands out. In his first game, on August 6th, he had a triple against Tampa Bay and stole five bases in eight attempts before a back injury ended his season.
Late in the season, Gutiérrez began to hit well. After September 1st, he had a .290 average and a .766 OPS in 31 games, impressing manager Brandon Hyde with his glove at third. He was an upgrade from Maikel Franco, who was released in late August.
The most unlikely to return is Valaika, who’s again eligible for arbitration. But after hitting .201 in 90 games, an encore is doubtful. He could be designated for assignment when Mateo and four others on the 60-day injured list need to be returned to the 40-man roster.
Jones, who was acquired from the Los Angeles Angels in exchange for starter Alex Cobb, hit only .149 with three RBIs in 26 games. Hyde often sent in a defensive replacement when the Orioles were ahead late in games, never a sign of confidence in a middle infielder. Jones is still raw at second, and it’s possible the Orioles will give him another shot.
Martin was selected in the Rule 5 draft in December 2018 and stayed with the team throughout 2019. The plan was for Martin, who had never played Triple-A, to go to Norfolk to start, but the minor league seasons was canceled because of Covid-19. Martin broke his right wrist in summer camp in 2020, costing him the 60-game season, and then broke his left hamate bone shortly before spring training began this past season.
Martin began 2021 at Norfolk but broke his left wrist chasing a fly ball in center field, costing him more than two months. He hit .235 with a home run and eight RBIs in 37 games for the Orioles. His most memorable moment came on September 16th when his 10th-inning bunt single led to an Orioles win over the Yankees.
The Orioles will be looking at free agents for the infield. In January, they signed Freddy Galvis to play shortstop, and he played well until he hurt his right quadriceps muscle in late June. He was traded on July 30th to Philadelphia, allowing Urías to continue to play regularly.
They signed Franco late in spring training to play third, and claimed second baseman Yolmer Sánchez, a one-time Gold Glove winner, on waivers from the Chicago White Sox last October. Neither move worked out. Sánchez was cut late in spring training.
Since Elias came to the Orioles, the team hasn’t had major league-ready infielders in the minors. That should end soon, but first they’ll have to find more placeholders.
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