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The 2020 Orioles infield could be surprisingly competent

With the José Iglesias signing, the infield core seems locked into place. And if you squint, you can start to see the outlines of a competent group.

MLB: Texas Rangers at Baltimore Orioles Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

It’d be a lot to say that Orioles fans should enter this 2020 season feeling something like excitement. There’s no way this team will contend in the AL East, what with the Yankees continuing to do Yankee things (to wit, signing Gerrit Cole for nine years, $324 million), 96-game winners Tampa Bay still boasting a rotation of Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow, Charlie Morton, Ryan Yarbrough, and Yonny Chirinos, Toronto picking up starters Tanner Roark and Hyun-Jin Ryu to go with their talented crop of youngsters—Guerrero Jr., Biggio, and Bichette—and the Red Sox...well, the Red Sox are in freefall, but they maintain a formidable hitting core along with a $240 million payroll.

Nonetheless, expectations, as they say, are relative. Last year, many long-suffering Orioles fans would have gladly put up with another losing season so long as our guys stopped giving up free runs via boneheaded or hapless play in the field. The team finished last in the AL in defensive runs saved, fifth-worst in total errors committed, and not infrequently, they simply looked like a bunch of amateurs out there.

Now, however, it seems the long-suffering faithful might just get their wish. With Tuesday’s signing of former Reds shortstop José Iglesias, the prospect of competent play around the diamond in 2020 looks surprisingly real. Here, a quick look around the horn at the projected starting infield:

Catcher - Pedro Severino

Nobody should be upset to see Pedro Severino get another chance to be the Orioles’ starting catcher (with the possible exception of Chance Sisco). Always considered a glove-first catcher, Sevvie was a pleasant surprise offensively last season (.249/.321/.740 with 44 RBI). And while his numbers behind the dish dropped off in the second half—especially his caught stealing rate, which was over 60% for a long stretch beforehand—there’s a good chance this was the product of fatigue in a season where he played 200 more innings than his previous high. The Orioles continue to hope that Sisco can turn into a plus hitter at the position, while Austin Wynns, another defensively solid catcher who’s shown some ability to call games, may also be able to break onto the roster in stretches.

First base - Chris Davis

Unlike his much-maligned bat, the 33-year-old Davis’ glove hasn’t seen a dropoff in the last few years. In fact, he’s fielding the position just about as well as he did as a 23-year-old with the Rangers—which is to say, at a perfectly average level. That isn’t to say, however, that Davis will still be the Orioles’ everyday first baseman in August if he puts up a third consecutive sub-.200 average. Even with three seasons left on his monster (monstrous?) contract, Davis’ roster status will be in jeopardy if he doesn’t hit. In that case, the path to first would be cleared for Trey Mancini, long buried in the outfield where he doesn’t belong, or last season’s Minor League Player of the Year Ryan Mountcastle. For now, Davis has the job to himself, but poor play and a likely midseason Mountcastle promotion might change that before too long.

Second base - Hanser Alberto

Although Hanser Alberto’s breakout 2019 season had everyone focused on his prowess at the plate, the truth is, the 27-year-old Dominican was also a plus defender. While he doesn’t exactly shine on the eye test, lacking the range and athleticism of former teammate Jonathan Villar and current one Rio Ruiz, Alberto put up solid metrics in 612 innings at second base last season, finishing with an above-average .990 fielding percentage, 11 defensive runs saved, and just 3 errors. Alberto also put up above-average numbers at third—just barely—which leaves open the possibility of a righty-lefty Alberto-Rio Ruiz platoon. Still, if Alberto’s offensive numbers are close to what he put up in 2019, manager Brandon Hyde will probably leave him at his best position.

Shortstop - José Iglesias

If this is the Orioles’ only major offseason signing, well, that’s OK, because it’s a good one. Among Baltimore sportswriters, none seem able to find fault with the deal (not even Dan Connolly.) Last year, Jonathan Villar added a crucial spark to the lineup and leadership in the infield. But considering his north-of-$10 million asking price, inking Iglesias, a 30-year-old glove-first veteran, to a one-year, $3 million deal makes GM Mike Elias look like a genius. Iglesias is more of an under-the-radar guy, it seems, than he should be after finishing second in the Rookie of the Year vote in 2013 and earning a trip to the All Star Game with Detroit in 2015. Last year, over 1,169 innings of play, he was worth 1.5 WAR, putting up an impressive .288/.318/.724 batting line (for comparison, Hanser Alberto’s OBP was just nine points higher) and a .980 fielding percentage (.972 was league average), to go with a 5.9 UZR and a 1.8 range runs score, per Fangraphs.

Third base - Rio Ruiz

Rio Ruiz has always looked the part of the star athlete, but his career trajectory hasn’t quite lived up to its promise. Offensive inconsistency limited his starts last year, but second-half improvements in the power department last season, plus Jonathan Villar’s departure, leave the 25-year-old lefty with the chance, finally, to be an everyday third baseman. That’s good news for the Orioles, since Ruiz has looked solid in the field throughout: in 843 innings last season, he posted an above-average UZR (1.8), range runs (2.0) and fielding percentage (.969).

The Bench

For now, this is the area of greatest uncertainty. The Orioles could carry two utility infielders or just one to make room for two extra outfielders. With super utility man Stevie Wilkerson able to play both roles, that might free up a spot. Also in the mix are October pickup Pat Valaika, who can slot in all over the diamond, José Rondón, a light-hitting waiver pickup last summer who’s been honing his craft at Triple-A Norfolk, and Richie Martin, who could play his way back onto the roster with a strong start in Norfolk.

Still, whatever changes await this lineup down the pipe, be it in the form of late spring signings or midseason additions, it’s worth pointing out that the blueprint is already in place for a defensively solid 2020 Orioles team. Counting Ruiz, Iglesias, and Alberto, the Orioles now have three above-average defenders manning the diamond. That’s something Orioles fans can be thankful for, at least.