When your team’s two best players are just 25 years old, play second and third base, and remain healthy for the entire year, the role of the utility infielder lacks some relevance. That was certainly the case for the 2017 Orioles led by team MVP Jonathan Schoop and all-world Manny Machado.
If it weren’t for a significant injury to starting shortstop J.J. Hardy, the Orioles infield bench would not have played as much as they did. Hardy suffered a fractured right wrist after being hit by a Lance Lynn pitch on June 18, creating a hole on the left side of the infield. Unfortunately, the team’s primary utility man, Ryan Flaherty, landed on the disabled list in late May with a bum shoulder and was not available.
So, the Birds turned to recently acquired Ruben Tejada and all-glove, no-hit Paul Janish to fill the void. Janish got the first shot, starting five games at short after Hardy’s injury. But he lived up to his reputation at the plate, getting just two hits in 20 at-bats and was designated for assignment.
Tejada joined the Orioles in a cash deal with the Yankees shortly after Flaherty went on the DL. Now with Janish jettisoned, he became the everyday shortstop starting 28 games in Hardy’s absence. At first, he proved to be an adequate replacement. He played steady defense, committing just two errors, and even hit .333 during a 17-game stretch.
But he finished the month going just 1-for-19 in his last six starts. His time in the starting lineup came to an abrupt end when the Orioles obtained Tim Beckham from the Rays at the July 31 trade deadline and immediately inserted him into the lineup as the team’s everyday shortstop. Tejada was sent back to Norfolk a couple weeks later when Flaherty returned from his three-month stay on the DL.
Flaherty, Tejada and Janish combined for just 177 at-bats, but their offensive production was at-best, terrible. They batted just .203 with no home runs and 12 RBIs.
Obviously, this is an area for improvement for next year’s roster. Although, assuming Schoop, Beckham and Machado will man their everyday infield positions next year and remain healthy, the infield bench is far from the team’s biggest concern.
It will be interesting to see who fills these roles in ’18. Janish has since retired from baseball and will serve as a coach at Rice University next season. Tejada seems destined to sign a minor-league deal somewhere, possibly with the Orioles for depth purposes.
Flaherty may or may not return as an Oriole next year. The former Rule 5 draftee has been with the team since 2012 and seems to be a favorite of manager Buck Showalter, largely due to his ability to play multiple positions. But his career .215/.284/.355 batting line says it’s time to move on.
Don’t count out Hardy as a candidate to return as the team’s primary utility infielder. The Orioles are sure to decline their $14 million option, but could re-sign the likeable leader to a much less costly deal so he could backup Beckham at short and Schoop at second. His exceptional defense as shortstop makes him an attractive option, especially given the average-at-best skills Beckham possesses there.
If that were the case, Hardy would have to take a lot of grounders at second given that, remarkably, he has never played anywhere but shortstop for his entire professional career.
The Orioles would have to consider other options that could possibly be less expensive and give them more defensive versatility. However, a healthy Hardy on the bench, along with the intangibles he brings, could be an attractive option.