If you look at the Orioles offensive performance last season as a whole, they were middle of the pack or worse in a lot of categories. Breaking it down by position groupings, corner infield was one of the weakest links on the team. Although the O’s got eerily similar production out of their infield corners — first base and third base — last season, it was eerily bad production.
In 2020, Orioles first basemen hit a collective .219/.272/.382 at the plate with 10 home runs, while Orioles third basemen collectively slashed .219/.284/.414 with — you guessed it — 10 home runs. That’s not going to cut it for a team like Baltimore. The O’s are going to need a lot more offense out of first and third.
Before going any further, it would help to mention the players responsible for the most playing time at the aforementioned positions. Rio Ruiz appeared in the most games by far at third base with 53, while Hanser Alberto and Renato Nunez had several each. At first base, Nunez led the field with 28 games, then Chris Davis with 15 and Ryan Mountcastle with 10.
When looking to point fingers for the lack of pop at the corners, it may seem easy to blame that albatross of a contract that is still tethered to first base for the O’s, but Chris Davis only managed to play roughly 25% of the shortened season. So while he did play poorly when in the lineup, it was Nunez who played first base more often.
Before we go counting on any bounce-backs — looking at you Chris Davis — let’s take Nunez out of the discussion since he was released back on November 23rd.
Even before Nunez was officially out the door, Mountcastle started to see more playing time at first base by the tail end of last year. And rightly so, many people are anxious to see what kind of offensive numbers the young power-hitter can put up over the course of a full season’s worth of at-bats.
Not that a full baseball season in 2021 is a sure thing at this point in time, but you get the point. If Mountcastle can perform like he did last year and the team sticks him at first base more often next season, it could do wonders for positional production.
Another factor to consider here is the vacated designated hitter at-bats. Nunez and Jose Iglesias took up the bulk of those opportunities in 2020 with 21 and 15 games at DH, respectively. So we could also see more chances for guys like Mountcastle and Trey Mancini to take a break from the field but stay in the batting order more often.
Now on to third base and Rio Ruiz, who is still only 26 years old. His 2020 season had more downs than ups with him hitting .300 after his 20 at-bats but then hitting .165 in August and .256 in September, leading to a final batting average of .222 and a .713 OPS.
But the Orioles don’t seem intent on giving up on the young third baseman yet, and you can’t discount the Astros connection he has with GM Mike Elias. But there may still be some competition for Ruiz by the time spring training rolls around next year.
Showing depth at the infield corners, a look down the Orioles player list shows several relatively new additions to the 40-man roster. Three guys jump out in particular.
Tyler Nevin, a 23-year-old corner infielder who plays more first than third, came to Baltimore from the Colorado Rockies on August 30th as part of the Mychal Givens trade. Over the course of five minor league seasons, he’s carrying a .286/.362/.441 triple slash line and he also happens to be a former first round draft pick (38th overall, 2015).
Rylan Bannon, acquired in the Manny Machado trade with the Dodgers, is a potential candidate for third base. That’s been his primary position in the minors (172 starts), while his secondary position is second base (85 starts).
He was protected from today’s Rule 5 Draft after being placed on the club’s 40-man roster last month and he offers a solid profile at the plate. Case in point, his .280/.375/.481 career batting line in the minors.
Another name worth mentioning is Chris Shaw. Elias grabbed the 27-year-old first baseman off of waivers from the San Francisco Giants on November 25th. He’s a former first round draft pick (31st overall) by the Giants in 2015 with power at the plate. He hit 28 home runs and slugged .559 in 2019 while splitting his time between Double-A and Triple-A.
Unfortunately, he’s got a lowly .153 batting average and .466 OPS in the majors, but it is also a very small sample size at 38 games.
None of these players are guaranteed to provide more production than last year’s corner infielders. But the rebuilding Orioles can afford to give them opportunities.