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The O’s blew a hole in the infield this week. Now, how will they fill it?

After saying goodbye to Renato Núñez, José Iglesias and Hanser Alberto in the span of a week, the 2021 Orioles have needs to meet.

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MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Baltimore Orioles
Right now, the shortstop position is in the capable hands of. . . Pat Valaika?
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Stop me if you’ve heard this one—rebuilds aren’t pretty. This week, the Orioles shed three players who were regulars last season: at second, singles machine and lefty-killer Hanser Alberto, at third/DH, their 2020 home run leader Renato Núñez, and at shortstop, the sure-handed José Iglesias, who not only captained the infield but hit .373 with three home runs and 17 RBIs in 39 games.

Sure, the team did keep six of seven arbitration-eligible players (Trey Mancini, Anthony Santander, Pedro Severino, recent pickup Yolmer Sánchez, Shawn Armstrong, and Pat Valaika), and a reunion with Alberto isn’t necessarily out of the cards (though with FanGraphs ranking Alberto as the second-most valuable non-tendered player in MLB, he may just want to test out his market value). But some, like a skeptical Ken Rosenthal, feel that these moves represent the worst of teams “gaming a system” to their advantage and to the disadvantage of moderately compensated players and, especially, fans: “What sometimes gets lost is that part of a GM’s job also is to field a competitive team for their fans, not continually look for the least expensive way out.”

Refusing to shell out $2 million on the well-liked Hanser Alberto is one thing. But at a time when the O’s claim to be looking to shore up the defense behind an inexperienced pitching staff, the loss of Iglesias feels especially tough to swallow.

And while the starting 2B gig should be in good hands with the recent acquisition of former Gold Glover Yolmer Sánchez from the White Sox on October 30th, suffice it to say that at shortstop, the in-house options are thin. Offensive lightweight Andrew Velazquez, who got more starts at short in 2020 than any other Oriole, is gone. Pat Valaika did everything the Orioles asked of him this season, but remains too much of a defensive liability to start every day. With all of 283 pro at-bats and a .208 average to his name, former Rule 5 pick Richie Martin remains a big unknown at the plate, especially after his 2020 season was erased by a broken wrist. The Orioles like Ramón Urías enough that he still has a spot on the 40-man roster, but the 26-year-old has only played ten games at the MLB level.

No top prospects are knocking at the door right now, unless you count 19-year-old Gunnar Henderson or 21-year-old Jordan Westburg (estimated MLB arrival for both: 2023). Terrin Vavra, acquired in the midseason trade for Mychal Givens, is profiled as an “offensive-minded utility type” (his dad is Detroit Tigers hitting coach Joe Vavra, so this makes sense) who could land in the majors in 2021. Still, there are too many unknowns. The O’s have been prolific Rule 5 shoppers in the last decade, but although there were a glut of shortstops left unprotected ahead of the Rule 5 draft (including the Twins’ No. 9 prospect Wander Javier), it’s not the place you go to fill a starting job.

On Wednesday, executive VP/GM Mike Elias basically agreed, telling reports that the Orioles’ regular 2021 shortstop is probably not on the team for now:

I think we’ve got work left to do there. Part of the risk with a trade like [the Iglesias one] when it comes to the stability at the major league level that we desire is, we’re now looking for infield upgrades. … It does make our job this offseason a little harder. I do feel like there’s going to be other moves necessitated because of this trade, but … it was more important to get the young pitching prospects back, and when we looked at the market, we figured we’d have some opportunity to reinforce the group that we already have on the roster.

Nobody expects these Orioles to be big spenders this offseason, so forget about pursuing star free agent shortstops like Marcus Semien (estimated market value $19 million), Didi Gregorius ($10 million), Andrelton Simmons ($7.5 million), or 25-year-old KBO star Ha-Seong Kim, who CBS Sports projects could net a contract of six years and at least $7 million annually.

More in the realm of the possible, based on this list, might be Freddy Galvis, who at 31 is just a couple of years removed from two back-to-back 162-game seasons for Philadelphia (in 2017 and 2018). José Peraza slashed .288/.326/.416 in 2018 for Cincinnati before signing a 1-year, $2.85 million contract with Boston last season. After a breakout season for the Rays in 2018 (a .262/.382/.415 slash line in 87 games), Daniel Robertson (27) was just non-tendered by San Francisco, having hit just .224 with two homers in 87 games since. Nine-year veteran Adeiny Hechavarria (32), a onetime fixture in the Marlins infield, could provide decent glovework for a price of around $1 million.

It’s not a thrilling list, but then again, we weren’t out of our minds when the Orioles signed José Iglesias in January, and what a bargain he turned out to be. Definitely expect a shortstop to be signed sometime before the spring, particularly because this organization likes to field a crowded roster come spring training time to whittle down candidates Hunger Games-style. That’s what they did in 2020, when the likes of Stevie Wilkerson, Pat Valaika, Andrew Velazquez, Richie Martin, Ramón Urías and Dilson Herrera competed for an infield utility role. Personally, I wouldn’t be shocked if either an improved Richie Martin made off with the starting job, or if Elias handed the reins to a cheap stopgap veteran. Either way, I have doubts about unearthing another José Iglesias this time around, and am expecting regression at the position. But anyway, bottom line, you know the drill by now: give Mike Elias (and this team) some time.