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Richie Martin showed some growing pains in 2019

The former first-round draft pick struggled at the plate for the O’s this season before heating up late. Can he be “the guy” at shortstop, or is he destined for utility roles?

Kansas City Royals v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Evaluating Richie Martin from a statistical perspective is a little like that scene from the movie Office Space.

If you’ve seen it, you probably know where I’m going with this. A pair of consultants are brought in to help with downsizing, and while hearing a particularly replaceable employee try to describe his responsibilities, one finally gives up and asks “What would you do here?”

For an Oriole fan, it’d be easy to ask that of Martin given a look at the numbers from this summer.

Martin didn’t do much at the plate for the Orioles this season. He batted .208 over the course of 120 games, had an on-base percentage of .260 and posted an OPS of .581. Not good.

But he’s a shortstop, you might counter, so surely he’s another Rey Ordonez or Cesar Izturis, right? Someone whose glove and defensive prowess at a key position make up for his light bat?

Not exactly. Martin’s defensive WAR was -0.1, indicating he was ever-so-slightly below league average, and his fielding percentage was .971, while the American League average at shortstop was .970. His range factor, which measures putouts and assists per nine innings and is therefore an attempt to gauge a player’s ability to get to balls, was 3.81 per nine innings. The league average was 3.87.

So...what does he do here?

In truth, Martin’s role, as is the case with a lot of Orioles players ever since the front office ripped up the franchise floorboards, comes not from what he does, but what he can do. The 24-year-old Martin was a first-round pick by Oakland out of the University of Florida only four years ago, and in 2018 while still with the Athletics organization had a solid year at the plate for Double-A Midland, batting .300 with an .807 OPS and 25 stolen bases.

He arrived in Baltimore as a Rule 5 acquisition last December, and got a promotion he likely wasn’t quite ready for just yet. Despite having no major league innings under his belt, he was named the team’s Opening Day shortstop, and started 2-for-his first 23 to put himself in a hole with his average that he never escaped.

Still, it’s clear that the organization is hoping he can have a role with this team going forward. He was the 13th-ranked prospect entering the season, and after getting a feel for big-league pitching, he began to show that he was getting the hang of it. After looking out of his element in the first half of the season, Martin was more comfortable in a part-time role in the second half, batting .284 with a .321 on-base percentage and .713 OPS in 51 games, only 33 of which he started.

And then there is the defense. Martin’s ability at shortstop wasn’t appreciated by the numbers, but he’s made a name for himself over the years both in college and the pros for his slick fielding. That was apparent during the season, as Martin was routinely showing off a flair for the highlight-reel play with his quick reactions to hard-hit balls and strong arm.

Add to that mix enough speed for Martin to swipe 10 bags on 11 tries, and it becomes clear what the Orioles see in him. The question becomes how much of that potential Martin can fulfill.

He’ll certainly get his chances.

With two more years to go before he’s arbitration eligible and five years of team control remaining, Martin is the ideal low-risk prospect for the Orioles to try to develop as they take these first steps toward rebuilding the team. He has no touted prospect like Adley Rutschman or Ryan Mountcastle immediately threatening for his job, so it’s in both his and the team’s best interest for Martin to get some more cracks at establishing himself as a big-league shortstop.

Given his defensive skills and situational value (defensive replacement, utility infielder, pinch-runner, etc.), Martin certainly has value for the Orioles’ and any team’s roster going into 2020. Next to catcher, shortstop is the position where defensive ability is most appreciated and offensive shortcomings are most willingly tolerated. Martin should get a chance to make his case for the starting lineup next year — although the emergence of Hanser Alberto makes that a tougher prospect if Jonathan Villar is back — but even if he doesn’t make the progress expected of him in the offseason, he remains someone Brandon Hyde will appreciate having on his bench.

After that, however, it gets cloudier. For Martin to have a role on the Orioles when the rebuild begins to show fruit, he’ll need to be able to hit. By then, Baltimore’s shortstops on the farm — be it Mason McCoy, Adam Hall, Gunnar Henderson or Cadyn Grenier, assuming he gets his game back together — will be all grown up and challenging for the big-league job. Being a sure-handed .215 hitter probably won’t be enough to make the lineup, and even if Martin does get better with the bat, it might not be his call; Henderson, a second-round pick this year, could take the drama out of the decision depending on how his minor-league career goes.

Barring a veteran acquisition that leaves him on the outside looking in, however, Martin will likely get a good, long look for more Camden Yards at-bats this spring. Whether he starts proving he knows what to do with them will determine just how many he gets.