The Orioles struggled in many areas last year. Put “playing shortstop” in that list.
According to Baseball Reference, Baltimore finished tied for 24th in WAR among shortstops, coming in at -0.8. The Orioles ranked 13th in the American League. And that was with Jonathan Villar, one of their best players all season, getting 73 of those starts.
So it makes sense that Mike Elias, while making the sort of offseason media appearance that most executives use as an opportunity to say a whole bunch of nothing, actually gave a little bit of something, acknowledging that the Orioles will be looking for some help in the middle infield, shortstop in particular.
This is a good move. The Orioles won’t and shouldn’t be shopping at the top of the free agent market, and as our Andrea SK pointed out, they shouldn’t be looking for some “hey, look who we got” name, either.
Shortstop, however, is a smart area to target. It’s a practical choice for this Orioles team. And it’s quite likely a necessary one, too.
The biggest reason, of course, is the Jonathan Villar situation. The Orioles only have the 28-year-old under contract control for one more season, so it’s been widely speculated since even before the 2019 season came to a close that Baltimore, always searching for more young prospects to add to the rebuilding mix, would be considering moving the team leader in hits, runs and stolen bases.
Elias said in his 105.7 interview that the team would have to listen to trade offers, and given the spike in pay he could be getting in arbitration (thought to be near $10.4 million), there’s only more reason to think the team would be looking to move him. Doing so would put one heck of a dent in the Baltimore lineup. That’s 162 starts, 642 at-bats, 176 hits and 24 home runs suddenly gone from an order that would be running dangerously low on reliable bats, and with very few at the shortstop position ready to fill the hole today.
But even if Villar makes it into 2020 in an Oriole uniform, the team still needs an upgrade at shortstop. A big reason is Richie Martin’s place in the organization. The former first-round pick is at a crossroads, and neither path looks good for the Orioles lineup in 2020. After hitting .208 with a measly .322 slugging percentage and .581 OPS at the major-league level, the Orioles could look to salvage his potential, throw him a lifeline and let him work on his swing at the Triple-A level in the hopes that his bat catches up with his glove.
The team could also keep him in the majors, and now the Orioles are looking at going into the season with someone who showed signs the previous year of just not being ready for the level of competition. Martin, of course, could progress in the offseason, but that’s not an encouraging proposition on paper. A proven, if unspectacular, major league shortstop coming in would either provide a stopgap while Martin and the other prospects continue to grow, or give the team some insurance in case Martin gets the early starts and shows he still has some catching up to do.
Yet another reason for an acquisition, though, is Hanser Alberto. Ideally, the Orioles have a vital cog returning in Alberto, who batted .305 while becoming one of the season’s best finds, and who should slot in at second base for the start of next year.
Alberto’s production, however, is far from guaranteed. In three seasons and 89 games before last year, Alberto batted .192 with a .440 OPS. Perhaps he’s turned a page at the plate for good, and we can certainly hope that what we saw last year is what he is, but there is ample evidence to suggest a fall back to reality is coming, and the Orioles have to make sure they have a contingency plan in place.
Whether Villar is coming back or not, a shortstop addition allows everything to click more smoothly. It takes pressure off of the pieces in place (Alberto, Martin, Rio Ruiz, perhaps Villar), and allows the incumbents to play where they’re best suited. Alberto can play second, Ruiz can play third. If Villar is back, he can play his primary position of second base, and Alberto can take third, with Ruiz available to take over if Alberto does regress.
So that’s the explanation for “why.” As for “who,” a few good names — solid players who won’t cost the team a fortune — are out there.
Jose Iglesias is a free agent and, it would seem, a perfect fit. He’s only 29 and has been an excellent defensive player for his entire career — fulfilling Elias’s desire for a defense-first addition — but he’s also started to fix the offensive woes that caused the Red Sox to move on from him in the first place. He hit .288 with 11 home runs and 59 RBI in 504 at-bats last season with the Reds, and has hit above .250 each year he’s been a full-time starter. He also rarely strikes out; he and Hanser Alberto whiffed a combined 120 times in 1,208 at-bats, and would give the Orioles two middle infielders who reliably put the ball in play.
Elsewhere among free agents, Adeiny Hechavarria, Jordy Mercer and Hernan Perez are names being mentioned, but each comes with their risks. Hechavarria hasn’t played 100 games in a season in three years and has been in decline at the plate in that time, Mercer is a solid hitter but 33 years old with an average-at-best glove, and Perez batted only .228 this year, though his versatility is attractive and his status as a player with past pop could be inviting in a J.J. Hardy kind of way.
In the end, though, the Orioles aren’t looking for the next Manny Machado here. They’re looking for a stopgap, or someone to fill a niche. That player is out there; here’s hoping the Orioles see the need.