The Orioles pulled a big surprise move as they stared down the deadline of whether to tender 2021 contracts to their arbitration-eligible and pre-arbitration players. While the world waited to see who the O’s would or wouldn’t tender, The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported that the team traded shortstop Jose Iglesias to the Angels. The Orioles announced the trade shortly after. They received minor leaguers Jean Pinto and Garrett Stallings from the Angels.
In a more expected decision, the Orioles chose not to tender a 2021 contract to second baseman Hanser Alberto. He is now a free agent. The Orioles 40-man roster now sits at 38, which leaves them room to make a Rule 5 draft pick - or two! - next week.
I was looking forward to seeing what Iglesias might be able to do with more of a full season’s workload at shortstop. He only started 22 games at the position in the shortened 2020 season. Over 39 games total, Iglesias batted .373/.400/.556. Maybe that gave him some value. Maybe the Orioles didn’t want to worry about the injury risk. Maybe the earlier hand-wringing about whether they’d be too cheap to pick up his 2021 option is still a factor. They’ve certainly dumped that salary now.
Iglesias being traded is the toughest for me to take of the trio of infield moves the O’s have made in the last couple of weeks. Renato Nunez being designated for assignment is easy to justify since he plays a position with plenty of other interesting players in the mix. Perhaps it’s better to say he doesn’t play a position.
Alberto being non-tendered could have been seen in combination with the O’s claiming Gold Glover Yolmer Sanchez as looking to upgrade the infield defense. That could be, but it’s tough to think they can do better at shortstop than Iglesias.
As for the players the Orioles got back from the Angels: Pinto is a Venezuelan pitcher who will be turning 20 next month. He has yet to play outside of the Dominican Summer League, where he struck out 19 batters in 12 innings as an 18-year-old in 2019. It is likely this fact interested Mike Elias.
Pinto was a late signing, joining the Angels organization last May, when he was already 18. Amateur international players are eligible to sign when they are 16. Signing in May also means he snuck in at the tail end of the 2018-19 signing period, rather than being a typical prospect who signs as soon as the period kicks off on July 2 in a non-pandemic season.
Stallings was the Angels fifth round pick in the 2019 draft. They selected him from the University of Tennessee, where he had been a starting pitcher. Stallings has yet to make his professional debut.
It’s been typical for the Angels to do this recently, not having college pitchers debut in the pros until the next spring. The same happened with the Angels 2019 sixth rounder Zach Peek, who the Orioles acquired along with three others in the Dylan Bundy trade. So, the only thing there is to go off of is his stats as a junior in the SEC. Stallings struck out 106 batters and walked only 16 over 102.2 innings in his final amateur season. He’s rated as the #21 prospect in the Angels system, according to MLB Pipeline.
In a normal year, the tender deadline is usually a formality for all but a handful of players, but there’s been an expectation for a greater than usual number of non-tenders due to pandemic-related revenue interruptions affecting team budgets.
Perhaps the Orioles would have moved along from Alberto regardless, but under the circumstances, especially combined with Iglesias getting traded, it feels like a save money move. They were way less non-tender-happy than some other teams. The Reds and Angels, for instance, cut loose five players each ahead of this deadline.
The team had entered this part of the offseason with eight arbitration-eligible players. They pared that down to seven a couple of weeks ago by designating Renato Nunez for assignment. GM Mike Elias indicated Nunez was probably going to be non-tendered anyway. The O’s also reached agreements on a 2021 contract with Pedro Severino on Tuesday and with infielder Yolmer Sanchez earlier on Wednesday.
That left the O’s heading down to the final hours with decisions to make on Alberto, Shawn Armstrong, Trey Mancini, Anthony Santander, and Valaika.
There never seemed to be much question that Armstrong, Mancini, and Santander would be tendered for 2021. The most expensive of these players, according to the MLB Trade Rumors projections, is going to be Mancini, who is projected to again have a $4.8 million salary after being unable to play in 2020 due to his cancer diagnosis and recovery. That is not a large price tag for a player who posted an .899 OPS in 2019.
Santander, projected at $1.7 million, and Armstrong, projected at $800,000, are even smaller expenses. Both were good in the shortened 2020 season. Armstrong carried a 1.80 ERA and 0.800 WHIP across 15 innings of relief. Santander batted .261/.315/.575 in the 37 games he played. If these three players continue on the same trajectory, this may be a different story a year from now.
Alberto, with a $2.6 million projected price tag, was on thinner ice after his 2020 campaign, where he hit .283/.306/.393 in 54 games. That’s a nice batting average, but without either walks or power to back it up, it left him at a below-average 91 OPS+.
When the Orioles claimed Sanchez on waivers from the White Sox, that was a big sign they might be trying to swap out their light bat second baseman for a lighter bat second baseman with a better glove. Sanchez was the Gold Glove winner at the position in 2019. He reached an agreement with the Orioles earlier on Wednesday for $1 million, solidifying his place in the near-term picture.
That leaves Alberto on the outside looking in. If there is mutual interest, the Orioles could still re-sign Alberto later on. I would be surprised if it turns out the Orioles were just trying to get Alberto back for less money. I would say the team was looking to upgrade the defense in order to help the young pitching staff, but trading Iglesias doesn’t seem to jibe with that as a goal.
To me, Alberto wouldn’t seem to be a candidate for anything more than a minor league contract to be insurance at Triple-A. That’s too bad, because he’s seemed like a fun player to have on the team for the last couple of seasons. So did Nunez. I’ll be glad when the roster is stocked with fun players who are also better than many of their major league positional peers.
Valaika brings some positional versatility and a bit of possible power in a right-handed bench bat role. He started games at five different positions for the Orioles in 2020. That’s not to say he was good at any of them, but he batted .277/.315/.472 in 52 games, which is at least interesting, especially for only a projected $1.1 million. He and the Orioles settled on a 2021 contract in the minutes before the non-tender deadline.
Valaika is 28, so this probably is who he is, but you never know who might be a late bloomer in the Steve Pearce mold. Unless it gets to a point where he’s blocking a prospect, it doesn’t hurt to give him a chance. This statement doesn’t apply if it turns out that the Orioles think that Valaika is a viable option to be the regular starting shortstop now that Iglesias has been traded. I feel that I saw enough of that in 2020 to know I don’t want to see it again.
Although the Orioles have tendered these 2021 contracts, it’s not a guarantee that all of these players will be in the Opening Day picture. Last offseason, they traded Bundy within days of tendering him a 2021 contract. Here we are almost exactly a year later and the Orioles have traded another veteran to the Angels. They also traded Jonathan Villar in the burst of activity leading up to the deadline last year.
Next year’s Orioles are going to look different than we might have thought a day ago, in a way that is probably going to make watching them less fun initially. The future may turn out to be bright. The present, well, it could be better.