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With Sanchez claimed, Iglesias kept, Orioles infield has both new and familiar faces

The Orioles picking up Jose Iglesias’s contract option answers one question for the infield. The claim of Yolmer Sanchez raises more.

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

The Orioles picked up the $3.5 million contract for Jose Iglesias for 2021 on Sunday afternoon, settling one of the lingering questions they faced heading into the offseason. It seems safe to say that Iglesias is going to be the O’s first choice to play shortstop next season. Things are less settled with the rest of the infield.

That the O’s would end up picking up Iglesias’s option was treated by some Orioles beat writers as a question mark. It would have been disappointing to see such an inexpensive option declined.

Other teams across the league did some of this cost-cutting by declining contract options that were believed to be no-brainers this time a year ago, with the Indians going so far as to put their closer, three-time All-Star Brad Hand, on waivers in hopes another team would claim him so that the Indians would not have to pay the $1 million buyout to decline Hand’s $10 million option for 2021. This effort failed and the Indians bought out Hand’s option.

If anything, it looks like the Orioles might have added some money to their infield picture with a Friday waiver claim of 2019 Gold Glove second baseman Yolmer Sanchez. The 28-year-old switch-hitting Venezuelan was not tendered a 2020 contract by the White Sox, where he’d played for the prior six seasons.

Though Sanchez’s defense gets good marks, he entered last offseason with a career MLB batting line of .244/.299/.357. The White Sox sent him packing rather than pay him an estimated $6.2 million in arbitration in 2020.

Sanchez settled for a minor league contract with the Giants for 2020, was injured during July camp and never played for them before getting dumped, where the White Sox snatched him back up... at least until the early days of this offseason, when they tried to sneak him through waivers and the Orioles pounced.

MASN’s Roch Kubatko noted when Sanchez was claimed that he remains arbitration eligible in 2021. What kind of salary he might command after making $4.625 million in 2019 but settling for the minor league contract in 2020 is not completely certain, but if they’re going to keep him around it doesn’t seem like he’s going to be headed for the MLB minimum salary.

Is the addition of Sanchez, who has significant MLB experience at both second base and third base, a sign that the Orioles might move on from either Hanser Alberto or Rio Ruiz? While each had some moments in the shortened 2020 season, both ended up as below-average hitters overall, and neither is a defensive powerhouse.

Ruiz hit .222/.286/.427. That’s a crummy on-base percentage. He also made a lot of bad throws. The most interesting thing there is to say about his 2020 season involved his mullet. Alberto’s .283/.306/.393 looks a bit better, but he’s also due to get to over $2 million in arbitration salary for 2021.

These are two players where they have kind of fun personalities on a bad team where there were no expectations. Neither looks like he will be a part of the next good Orioles team. Sanchez probably won’t either, as Cot’s Contracts lists him as being a free agent again for 2022.

With Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer having made it to the MLB level in 2020 and more young pitchers figuring to come in 2021, shoring up the infield defense is a valuable goal to pursue. It’s good to give the pitchers who could be in the next good Orioles rotation a chance to succeed. If that means Sanchez at second base or third base instead of Alberto or Ruiz, that’s a plus for the future.

The mix at first base hasn’t been impacted by any recent roster maneuvering, though there are still lingering questions there as well. Will Trey Mancini be ready to resume action at full strength in 2021, as he and the team are currently optimistic he will be able to do? If Mancini is in the picture, will they put him at first base or back out at an outfield corner?

Where does that leave Renato Nunez, headed for his first bite at the arbitration apple? Nunez played defense at a “let him be the designated hitter” level. His 2020 batting line of .256/.324/.492 was the best of his career, but that also came with some batted ball luck that may not carry over to a full season.

If the outfield prospects pan out and Mancini and Ryan Mountcastle are the first baseman/designated hitter combo, where does that leave Nunez? Maybe it leaves him in the non-tender pile. And that’s without even trying to figure out what the Orioles ongoing reticence to declare Chris Davis’s remaining contract a sunk cost might do to squeeze out someone else who’s on the bubble.

The deadline to tender arbitration-eligible players a 2021 contract is December 2, so we’ll likely get some more clarity about who they want to keep and who they don’t closer a month from now. Until then, it’s interesting just knowing that a fresh name is in the mix and the O’s aren’t signaling that they will definitely go towards 2021 with the same second or third baseman as they had in 2020.