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The Orioles infield is poised for a step forward in 2021

Returning players and some new additions should make for a unit with a higher upside on the dirt next season.

MLB: Exhibition-Washington Nationals at Baltimore Orioles Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The Orioles have several difficult decisions looming this week as the December 2nd non-tender deadline draws near. Among those tough calls are several that will impact the makeup of the team’s infield, a group with room for improvement following an uneven 2020 campaign.

Of course, not all positions are created equal. Chris Davis’s 16-game stint dragged the first base unit down to a collective -0.2 fWAR. Meanwhile, Jose Iglesias’s hot bat buoyed the shortstop group to a 1.5 fWAR despite a nagging injury and lackluster contributions from others.

There is reason to believe, however, that each of the Orioles infield positions has a plausible opportunity to improve upon their 2020 numbers.

Let’s go around the horn.

So far, there have been no indications that Davis is going anywhere. In fact, MASN’s Roch Kubatko was pretty blunt about in in a recent blog post, saying “Listen to me: Chris Davis won’t be released.” In that event, you can expect him to see at least some time at first base, but it should be rather limited.

Trey Mancini should be the team’s starter at first base provided that both he and his doctors have determined he is ready for that kind of workload. He missed the entire 2020 season following a colon cancer diagnosis in March. But he was recently deemed cancer-free and the belief is that he will be a full-go for 2021. Mancini at 100% is probably still the Orioles’ best player, and it would provide a huge boost.

Even if Mancini does play everyday, it wouldn’t shock anyone to see manager Brandon Hyde give him some time at DH as well to get him a little time off his feet. That could allow Ryan Mountcastle to see more innings at a position where he appeared in 10 games a season ago. A pairing of Mancini and Mountcastle is a definite upgrade.

While the first base situation is fairly straight forward, things are much murkier in the middle infield. Hanser Alberto was the starter at second base a year ago. But he also posted a wRC+ of just 91 and is about to get a pay raise to over $2.5 million through arbitration. The Orioles may prefer to non-tender him and attempt to re-sign at a discount or move on entirely.

Pat Valaika faces a similar fate. The utility infielder is set to make north of $1 million in 2021. Mike Elias and company may determine that is too steep for a 28-year-old player with an intriguing bat but a worrisome defensive acumen.

Should one or both of Alberto and Valaika be non-tendered that could mean one of the newest Orioles, 2019 Gold Glove winner Yolmer Sanchez, receives oodles of playing time. He won’t do much to impress at the plate, but his ability in the field makes up for it; plus he should not cost too much to employ.

The Orioles picked up the 2021 option on shortstop Jose Iglesias. He battled through constant leg issues during the abbreviated 2020 season and emerged as the team’s most consistent offensive threat anyway, hitting .373/.400/.556 with 17 doubles and three home runs in just 39 games. It was an incredibly impressive performance from a player with a defense-first reputation. He probably won’t replicate those numbers in any future season, but a clean bill of health should allow him to flex his muscle with the leather once again.

The favorite to back up Iglesias at the moment is former Rule 5 pick Richie Martin. He struggled mightily (54 OPS+, -1.3 bWAR) in 2019 and then missed all of 2020 with a wrist injury. His speed and athleticism could be perfect for a utility role, but he needs to be at least passable at the plate. Another .208/.260/.322 batting line won’t cut it. That could earn him a ticket to Triple-A to open up the season and provide Ramon Urias with an opening. The rookie went 9-for-25 with two doubles a home run in limited chances last year.

Perhaps the weakest position on the infield as it stands is third base. Rio Ruiz has been the team’s starter over the last two seasons. He saw his slugging percentage jump by 51 points last year, but it coincided with a 20-point drop in his on-base percentage and a slight uptick in an already-elevated strikeout rate (22.5%). The bigger trouble is that he took a step back defensively, leaving him with relatively few positives in his game.

Rylan Bannon might push Ruiz in spring training. The 24-year-old was just added to the 40-man roster and currently sits as the Orioles 25th-ranked prospect, according to MLB Pipeline. Bannon hit .317/.344/.549 in a 20-game stint with Triple-A Norfolk in 2019 and then spent 2020 at the alternate site in Bowie.

Circumstances can always change. The Orioles may make a Rule 5 selection next week that factors into the infield picture. A trade or free agent move could shake things up. But the most likely outcome is that the players currently on the 40-man roster are those from which Brandon Hyde will have to put together his daily infield. But this group feel stronger than it has been in a number of years.

The return of Mancini and the emergence of Mountcastle as a viable first base option makes the continued presence of Davis on the roster easier to handle. And the potential of a slick fielding duo of Sanchez and Iglesias up the middle could be perfect for the Orioles young pitching staff. The hot corner might remain a bit of a weak spot, but the team won’t necessarily have to stick with Ruiz all summer if it’s not panning out. As seems to be happening throughout the organization, things are looking up for the O’s.