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Even in a rebuild, the Orioles need to add a reliable shortstop

The departure of Tim Beckham did not create the O’s hole at shortstop, but it did reinforce that they need help at the position. And no, Jonathan Schoop is not the answer.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Detroit Tigers Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

There are nine positions on a baseball diamond. Shortstop, it can be argued, is among the most important. As it stands, the Orioles don’t have an everyday-caliber major league shortstop on their roster. They will need to fix that at some point this offseason.

Baltimore’s three most frequent shortstops in 2018, in order, were Manny Machado, Tim Beckham and Jonathan Villar. Machado (traded in July, now a free agent) and Beckham (non-tendered) are no longer on the team. Villar filled in admirably down the stretch, but his track record suggests he’s a better fit at second base.

Villar posted a 0.2 UZR over 157.1 innings at shortstop in 2018, but he also had -3 defensive runs saved. Over his entire career he has a -29.6 UZR and -4 DRS at the position. Perhaps things are trending up for the 27-year-old. What’s more likely, however, is that he is simply a sub-par shortstop.

The Orioles can enter 2019 with Villar as the de facto starter at shortstop if they like. After all, winning MLB games will not be the organization’s top goal for the upcoming season. But it would better serve both the team and Villar personally to put him in a position to succeed. Overexposing him to shortstop will not do that.

The high minors don’t offer much help either. Steve Wilkerson, Breyvic Valera or Engelb Vielma could each play short in a pinch, but aren’t viable over an entire season. Top prospect Ryan Mountcastle has moved away from the position for good. In order to upgrade, Mike Elias and company will have to look outside of Birdland.

Perhaps the most obvious fit is 23-year-old Richie Martin, a current Athletics prospect who has been left unprotected ahead of the looming Rule 5 Draft. Martin is glove-first middle infielder that posted a 121 wRC+ over 118 games in Double-A last season. The Orioles can offer him a unique amount of playing time and his recent performance gives hope that his bat is finally starting to emerge. He checks all of the boxes: young, cheap, full of potential, and very little organizational commitment.

Of course, it’s not a foregone conclusion that Martin will be the pick when the O’s kick off the draft later this month. There are plenty of holes on the big league roster, and this should be a decision made with the future in mind.

Even if the O’s do draft Martin or another young shortstop, that would not preclude them from adding an infielder via free agency as well. If they don’t select Martin, they may have no other choice.

The current crop of shortstops on the open market is not especially deep. Machado is the big fish, and no, the O’s won’t be touching that one. Instead they will have to look further down the pecking order, where a few names stick out.

Jose Iglesias has been one of the best fielding shortstops in the majors this decade, and he continued with that run of brilliance last season, posting positive metrics across the board. Unfortunately, that comes with the caveat of absurdly little offense. He had a 90 wRC+ in 2018, which was actually the best he has done over a full season since 2015.

There are a lot of teams that could use a defense-first stopgap shortstop, but it doesn’t make sense for the Orioles to dedicate too many years or dollars to a player whose skills could be in decline. Iglesias will be 29 years old when Opening Day rolls around. He remains a stellar defender, but his UZR has fallen two straight seasons, and time will only make it worse. He could be a fine one-year option, but isn’t worth getting into a bidding war over.

The only other free agents that make some sense are Freddy Galvis, Jordy Mercer and Adeiny Hechavarria. None of them are especially competent with the lumber. Mercer is the elder statesman of the group at 32, while Galvis and Hechavarria are both 29. The entire trio may have to settle for one-year offers. Just please, Orioles, don’t sign Alcides Escobar. Please.

Hechavarria could be the most likely of that group to land with the O’s. He should also be the cheapest after hitting .247/.279/.345 between the Rays, Pirates and Yankees last season. Again, these aren’t ideal options, but someone needs to play shortstop for an organization devoid of internal solutions.

The final avenue to find a big league shortstop for 2019 would be through a trade. For a rebuilding team like the O’s that becomes a touchy proposition. Parting with any intriguing prospects would seem to be off limits. Likewise, they won’t be willing to take on a massive salary just to fill a hole either. Those two caveats will severely limit their possible trade partners.

It really only leaves the option for the team to add a veteran that may be blocking a younger player on their current team, and that current team is so eager to cut bait that they are willing to eat a significant amount of the contract in order to do so. There aren’t a ton of those guys available at the shortstop position.

The Angels may be ready to admit the Zack Cozart deal was a mistake as they have Luis Rengifo nearly ready in Triple-A, and a new manager in Brad Ausmus that will be eager to win with Mike Trout on the roster. It’s a similar situation with the Blue Jays who still owe Troy Tulowitzki a ton of money, and have Bo Bichette (not to mention Vlad Guererro Jr.) approaching the bigs. Both Cozart (shoulder) and Tulowitzki (bone spurs) are coming off of major injuries.

There’s no reason for the Orioles to over-think this. The transaction gymnastics necessary to execute a reasonable trade for a replacement level veteran seem unnecessary. It makes more sense to add a cheap, underwhelming free agent or select a Rule 5 pick with some upside, provided the team’s brain trust likes what they bring to the table. This is how the offseason of the worst team in baseball tends to go. It’s not flashy. In fact, it’s almost boring, and that’s OK.