In Maton, Nevin, Soto, Orioles look for vital fill-ins - BaltimoreBaseball.com
Rich Dubroff

In Maton, Nevin, Soto, Orioles look for vital fill-ins

Photo Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

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After the Orioles acquired Nick Maton, a utility player from the Detroit Tigers on Wednesday night, many fans wondered why. Even though the trade was only for cash considerations, fans were disturbed because they think the Orioles have enough infielders.

Maton’s purchase followed a similar one when the Orioles reacquired corner infielder Tyler Nevin, also from the Tigers for cash considerations.

On Thursday, the Orioles struck again, claiming infielder Liván Soto from the Los Angeles Angels off waivers.

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Suddenly, the Orioles had a full 40-man roster with nine infielders: first basemen Ryan Mountcastle and Ryan O’Hearn, Gunnar Henderson, Jorge Mateo, Ramón Urias, Jordan Westburg as well as Maton, Nevin and Soto.

That doesn’t include three top prospects who don’t need to be on the 40-man roster yet: Jackson Holliday, Coby Mayo and Connor Norby, all of whom have been invited to spring training, and who could each make their major league debuts in 2024.

Whenever a minor deal is announced, fans on social media belittle it, not realizing that some of these moves will turn out well for the Orioles.

Fans scoffed in November 2021 when left-hander Cionel Pérez was claimed off waivers from Cincinnati. Pérez had a 6.38 ERA in 2021, but in two seasons with the Orioles, has a 2.36 ERA.

They also snarled when O’Hearn was acquired in January 2023 from Kansas City, again for cash. He’d shown little power in 2022, hitting one homer and driving in 16 runs in 67 games. In 2023, O’Hearn hit .289 with an .801 OPS with 14 homers and 60 RBIs, providing important insurance when Mountcastle missed a month with vertigo.

Many of the moves that executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias makes don’t work out as well, but the smaller, less obvious ones are often the most important.

Most fans can name perhaps 21 or 22 players that will be on the Opening Day roster. With a good team there are fewer question marks, but Elias and manager Brandon Hyde will spend much of spring training deciding who those final four or five players are, and which of the players who don’t make the team will go to Triple-A Norfolk to serve as depth pieces.

Last year, the Orioles used 50 players, which seems like a lot for a team that won 101 players. Some were forgettable and contributed little, but others were there for a brief time and had a key moment or two.

The Orioles have been fortunate the last two years, with the fewest days spent on the injured list in 2022 and the second fewest in 2023. That may not happen again, and that’s why Elias scoops up players who fans think don’t matter.

Last spring training, there was a spirited competition for Mountcastle’s backup between O’Hearn, Franchy Cordero, Lewin Díaz and Josh Lester, none of whom were on the 40-man roster.

At the end of spring training, none of them made the team, though O’Hearn was quickly recalled and became that missing ingredient. Cordero opted out of his minor league contract, while Díaz and Lester, who both hit well in spring training, went to Norfolk.

Lester had far less major league experience than the others, but when the Orioles needed an extra bat in early June, they recalled him, and just before his 29th birthday, had his first major league hit and RBIs, and helped the Orioles get a win in San Francisco.

He played only 11 games and was sent back to Norfolk on June 23rd after he pitched the ninth inning in a 13-1 loss to Seattle. Those were 11 important games for the Orioles and for Lester, who is still looking for a baseball home for 2024.

There was also some skepticism when Aaron Hicks was signed in late May after his release from the New York Yankees. The Orioles needed a replacement for their left-handed hitting centerfielder Cedric Mullins, who was on the injured list.

Hicks was released by the Yankees with nearly three years left on his contract. Hitting .182 at the time of the release, he cost the Orioles just the major league minimum salary and surprised many by contributing to the Orioles and staying through the Division Series.

If there are no injuries to infielders during spring training, Maton, Nevin and Soto have little chance of making the Orioles, but if there are injuries, particularly multiple injuries, they could get a call.

Neither Maton nor Nevin has options left, so if they don’t make the team, it’s likely they’re designated for assignment and put through waivers late in spring training when there are many other players in the same predicament, making it easier to keep them.

Soto has two options left, so he can be freely sent to Norfolk.

These players also are in jeopardy of being cut earlier if the Orioles make a late signing or trade or claim other players on waivers, so they may not stay on the 40-man roster for long.

Why add them when the Orioles have so many infielders? Maton, Nevin or Soto have some major league experience and wouldn’t object to playing sporadically. The Orioles might choose them if there’s an infielder placed on the 10-day injured list rather than Mayo or Norby simply because they’d want those highly touted prospects to play regularly when they’re summoned from the minor leagues, and they know the others wouldn’t be with the team for long.

Maton and Soto are both left-handed batters, and Elias recently said there’s playing time available for a lefty-hitting infielder after the departure of Adam Frazier.

The Orioles also have to populate Norfolk, which last year won the Triple-A championship but will have many different players this year. The Tides are likely to be a combination of top-shelf prospects and players like Maton, Nevin and Soto with some major league experience.

If there are injuries, and those players provide stability while regulars are on the injured list, they’d be doing what they’re expected to do.

The greatest manager in Orioles history, Earl Weaver, who had outstanding everyday players through much of his tenure, understood the value of role and fill-in players.

“They’re not all great players, but they can all do something,” he’d say.

The Orioles have plenty of players who may soon be among the game’s greats, but they’re also looking for some who can just do something.

Call for questions: I’ll be answering Orioles questions just before the start of spring training next week. Please email yours to: [email protected].

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