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The Orioles have a shortstop problem

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Tim Beckham is having a tough season. Can he handle being the O’s shortstop during their rebuild?

Tampa Bay Rays v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

When the Orioles traded for Tim Beckham last season, the thought process behind the move seemed pretty clear. Not only could the former number one overall pick step in for the injured and struggling J.J. Hardy at shortstop for the remainder of 2017, but as a player under team control through 2020, he also presented a serviceable option at the position going forward. But a poor campaign this year has cast doubt on where Beckham fits on this Orioles roster that is currently under construction.

It has been a difficult season for Beckham. He began as the Orioles starting third baseman after he and Manny Machado flipped positions over the winter. Then he was sidelined for two months with a groin injury. Even after returning from the DL, his bat remained ice cold. Prior to the All-Star break, Beckham slashed .206/.254/.291 with two home runs and eight doubles.

The poor start to 2018 was a lot like the atrocious end of 2017. After setting the world on fire with an otherworldly August following his trade from the Tampa Bay Rays to Baltimore, Beckham’s bat disappeared in September as he hit .180/.255/.348 in 21 games down the stretch.

While Beckham’s offensive performance has been bad, it’s possible that a lot of the disappointment comes from how good he was when the O’s first acquired him. No one expected such an offensive outburst. Likewise, no one thought he would maintain anywhere near that rate of production, but the way in which his work with the lumber has fallen off a cliff is tough to swallow.

Even still, a shortstop’s primary job, especially one that doesn’t contribute much on offense, is to command the infield and play defense well enough that you forget about his bat altogether. This is the aspect of Beckham’s game that has been especially bad recently.

Fielding percentage and errors have obvious limitations, but in Beckham’s case they do actually tell us a little bit about how poorly he has played. In just 190.1 innings at shortstop, he has made 10 errors and has a .902 fielding percentage. Add in his seven errors at third base and you have the player in baseball with fourth-most miscues in the league despite missing 60 days worth of games.

Advanced stats back up the eye test and the old school numbers. At shortstop, Beckham has a -4.9 UZR/150 this season. At third base, things are slightly less awful with a -1.5 UZR/150. Both are bad and come out of the blue since Beckham had basically been an average fielder his last two seasons.

The reason for the drastic change has three obvious culprits. First, the position change in the off-season. He has mostly been a middle infielder his entire career and third base can be a tough position to play day in and day out. Then going back to short was too much to handle. Second, he is still hurting from the groin injury that kept him out earlier this year, or possibly some other ailment. Finally, he just stinks now. That would be odd for a 28-year-old to just lose “it” like that, but this isn’t a perennial All-Star we’re talking about. He had basically been a replacement-level player in Tampa and, so far, has had one hot month with the bat in Baltimore.

Beyond Beckham, the Orioles options for everyday shortstops that are ready for the big league stage are few and far between. Ruben Tejada is with Norfolk, but the O’s had him up last year and it didn’t really work. Luis Sardinas and Engelb Vielma have both played for the Birds this season, but neither inspires a ton of confidence, and Vielma is still recovering from a knee injury. Erick Salcedo plays everyday for Bowie and has a .275 slugging percentage.

Diving deeper into the farm is a bit more exciting. Second round pick Cadyn Grenier is struggling in Delmarva, but is regarded as a plus defender with potential at the plate. Mason McCoy is also with the Shorebirds and boasts an impressive defensive game as well. The recently acquired Jean Carmona or possibly his IronBirds teammate Adam Hall are the best offensive prospects at the position in the O’s system. Even still, there is a long way to go between Aberdeen or Salisbury and Baltimore. These youngsters may be part of a talented Orioles team in the future, but the big league club needs someone now that can support their pitching staff while at least putting up a fight in the lineup.

Looking at the upcoming free agents, there are going to be several interesting shortstops available. Some guy named Manny Machado is probably going to get most of the attention, but Freddy Galvis, Jordy Mercer and Jose Iglesias will all land jobs somewhere, with Iglesias being the only premier glove in the bunch.

Dan Duquette has stated publicly that the Orioles plan is to trim major league payroll, not add to it. Whether Duquette ends up pulling the strings during the upcoming off-season remains to be seen, but either way it appears unlikely that the O’s will wade too far into the free agent pool, especially with someone like Beckham, as flawed as he may be, under team control and relatively inexpensive.

The correct answer is often the most obvious one. In this instance, that answer is not the most exciting outcome, but it is the most logical.

The Orioles are bad. They are going to continue to be bad for the next two seasons, at minimum. The presence of Machado through January proved that an All-Star shortstop does not change that. There are better options than Beckham available via trade or free agency, but what the O’s would need to give up to acquire those players does not make much sense given the team’s current construction and future goals.

Grenier was drafted in the second round back in June for a reason. It is the same reason Hall was picked in that same round the year before and also why Carmona was acquired via trade in July. The Orioles think each of them has the ability to develop into a major league shortstop. All three of them are ranked among the club’s top 30 prospects on MLB Pipeline. The odds that all three pan out are slim, but with the O’s eyeing a potential return to contention in 2021, it makes sense to have three legitimate prospects at a position of need in the low minors right now.

It is difficult to watch Beckham on a nightly basis. His bat has improved since his early-season struggles but the glove is, at the moment, not major league quality. However, and it is cliche to say this, he does have a track record, and that makes it easier to believe that he will return to the performance level he has been at for most of his career.

Beckham’s issue with his groin is said to have started way back in Spring Training. For many players, the spring can be a vital time to prepare for the season ahead. If that gets taken away from them, they may struggle for the entire summer. Alex Cobb’s atrocious first half is evidence of that.

September is nearly here. Rosters will expand, and the Orioles will almost certainly add a player or two that is capable of playing shortstop (Breyvic Valera, Steve Wilkerson, etc.). There is no reason to get rid of Beckham. He deserves a chance at a healthy off-season to get himself right and reclaim his spot for the 2019 Orioles. If problems continue from there, another decision may need to be made. It’s not exciting, but it makes sense.