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Orioles positional preview: Infield

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The Orioles have a lot of weaknesses, and the infield may be chief among them.

MLB: Spring Training-New York Yankees at Baltimore Orioles Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

There’s no point in hiding from the truth. The Orioles have assembled the worst infield in the league, and it’s not particularly close.

There are no players near the level of the departed Manny Machado or even Jonathan Schoop. This group is a mix of unproven youngsters and a few veterans with limited upside. Worse than that, there isn’t much infield talent worth getting excited about in the organization’s high minors. The O’s infield has a long way to go.

This was done by design. The goal is not to win in 2019. It is to collect young affordable talent while spending as little as possible on the big league team. That will result in, at times, some ugly baseball in the interim. It’s all for the greater cause of building a contender down the line.

Around the horn

It all starts with Chris Davis, the first baseman with the big contract. His .168/.243/.296 batting line from 2018 is still difficult to believe. Despite an atrocious spring (.156/.308/.344), Davis is expected to be the team’s starting first baseman once again. There is some internal hope that he will bounce back and be better than he was a season ago.

Davis cannot be as bad as he was last year, or rather the Orioles decision-makers won’t allow him to be. Baseball Reference projects a .200/.288/.377 batting line with 21 home runs. Meanwhile, ZiPS forecasts a .196/.291/.382 line with 23 home runs and -0.2 WAR. Both scenarios would be huge improvements over 2019, although Davis would still be a well below average contributor.

Over at second base, 2018 midseason acquisition Jonathan Villar represents an exciting brand of baseball that that Orioles are trying to infuse throughout the roster. The 27-year-old speedster once led the league with 62 stolen bases (in 2016) and did well (.258/.336/.392) in 54 games following his trade from the Brewers last season.

BR projects a .258/.327/.405 season for Villar, all of which would be slightly above his career averages. Add in 31 stolen bases and he could represent the team’s best, and most moveable, trade chip.

The shortstop position is where many eyes will be locked early on this season. Richie Martin is projected as the starter. He’s a defense-first player that made his way to the O’s via the Rule 5 draft back in December. With few middle infield options in the club’s high minors, Martin should have no problem sticking on the roster all summer while he works out the kinks in his game. Should he falter, fellow Rule 5 newbie Drew Jackson and his strong arm could see time on the infield (among other places).

Not much is expected to come from Martin’s bat despite a 121 wRC+ breakout at Double-A last season. ZiPS has him down for a 70 wRC+ in his first big league season, but a 0.8 fWAR thanks to some steady defensive work. The rookie could greatly benefit from adding some power to his game as he is currently projected for a .093 ISO. Jackson is on the team for his versatility and athleticism. Anything he brings at the plate will be considered a bonus.

It’s anyone’s guess as to who starts at the hot corner. As things stand, both Renato Nunez and Rio Ruiz have a good chance to make the club on opening day. The right-handed hitting Nunez is the incumbent at the position, and he represents the higher offensive upside, but his struggles with the glove have opened the door for the left-handed Ruiz.

The difference between the two of them at the plate is power. Nunez is projected to slug .430 with a .193 ISO, whereas ZiPS says that Ruiz will manage just a .363 slugging percentage and a .135 ISO. However, Nunez’s glove is so poor that it may keep him out of the lineup more often than his occasional home run gets him in.

Behind the plate, things are starting to clear up. Chance Sisco had a big spring (.323/.500/.710, four home runs) at the plate before he was optioned on Sunday. Austin Wynns has struggled with an oblique injury. Jesus Sucre is a non-roster veteran with a reputation for working well with pitchers. And then there is Pedro Severino, who was added to the 40-man roster over the weekend.

Sucre and Severino offer virtually nothing offensively, and both are out of options. Neither one is a long term answer at the position, but management seems to prefer their defensive profile to deal with a pitching staff lacking in talent. Wynns has a future as a backup big league catcher, but his options and injury troubles make him an easy choice to start the year down on the farm.

The year to come

There’s no guarantee that any of these players lasts the entire season with the Orioles. Martin and Jackson may have the best chance only because they have to stick on the big league roster or else be offered back to their previous club. For that reason alone, the O’s may as well hold onto them.

Davis has to produce in order to maintain his spot on the roster. The Orioles made pretty clear overtures this spring that they are going to give prospect Ryan Mountcastle some time to learn first base in the minors. His bat is nearly ready for the big time, and he will almost certainly have a full time job in Baltimore by sometime in 2020.

Villar, who is under team control through next season, will be shopped at some point this year. He’s not going to be a member of the next competitive Orioles team. But he is unlikely to be worth a whole lot on the trade market. The O’s may end up feeling he’s worth more as a veteran on a young team.

Ruiz has one option left. Nunez is out of options. Expect the Orioles to manage the third base situation accordingly. The only prospect that could possibly get involved is, again, Mountcastle. He has played on the left side of the infield throughout his minor league career.

The catching position could see a lot of movement throughout the season. Sisco has shown too good of a bat to keep down forever. Both Severino and Sucre are talented with the leather, but they will have to hit at least a little bit to stick around. None of this should matter in a few years if the Orioles do the expected and select Oregon State’s Adley Rutschman with their top pick in the draft.

The Orioles infield is in rough shape. None of their big leaguers look to be current or future stars. The minors don’t offer much relief either. But things can change. Prospects can outperform their projected ceiling, and the right trade could return building blocks of the club’s next contender. The 2019 season will be about learning how to make those things a reality.