When Mike Elias took the reins of the Baltimore Orioles in November of 2018, there were a ton of holes on a roster that had just finished with the worst record in franchise history. That included a middle infield which boasted a solid contributor in Jonathan Villar and not much else.
This past December, Elias dealt Villar to the Miami Marlins rather than pay his expected $10 million salary in arbitration (Villar ended up settling with the Marlins at $8.2 million). The move left the O’s current 40-man roster with exactly zero middle infield holdovers from the previous regime.
During a rebuild, there are plenty of chances to tinker with low-risk moves that may or may not been given the chance to flourish. Elias has certainly done that with the waiver wire this winter.
The Orioles have made five different waiver claims on middle infielders: Pat Valaika from the Rockies, Richard Urena from the Blue Jays, Valaika (again) from the Diamondbacks, Ramon Urias from the Cardinals and Andrew Velazquez from the Indians. Each of those players remains within the organization with Urias and Velazquez as the two currently on the 40-man roster.
On top of that, the Orioles’ lone significant free agent splash will also be their starting shortstop. Jose Iglesias will earn $2.5 million in 2020 and has a $3.5 million team option for 2021 with a $500,000 buyout if declined. The 30-year-old is an above-average defender coming off of a solid offensive season in which he hit a career-high 11 home runs.
Iglesias takes over for Richie Martin, the top pick in the Rule 5 draft last year. Martin struggled mightily as a rookie, slashing .208/.260/.322 in 283 at-bats. Unless he has a stellar spring, the 25-year-old seems ticketed for Triple-A Norfolk to refine his game.
The other starting spot on the middle infield will be manned by Hanser Alberto, a player who, like Valaika this winter, was claimed on two different occasions by the Orioles last off-season. Alberto rewarded the Orioles belief in him by delivering a surprising performance in 2019, posting a 3.1 bWAR in 139 games of action.
Backing up Iglesias and Alberto will be a battle between Martin and the cavalcade of waiver claims and non-roster invitees that Elias has added to the mix. Regardless of the outcome, the Orioles will be left with significant depth in the high minors at both positions, something they haven’t had in years.
The lack of options in Norfolk necessitated the Orioles’ decision to draft Martin last season. There were clear concerns about his bat, but he possessed a major league ready glove for the position, something that was in short supply elsewhere in the organization. Elias prioritized rectifying that issue.
Of course, this comes with the expected caveat that the Orioles do not expect to actually be competitive with this current crop of big league ready middle infielders. But a solid structure in Baltimore allows the younger talent in the organization the time it needs to develop. The club lacks high-end “top 100” types on the infield, but that doesn’t mean the cupboard is barren. Dan Duquette left Elias with more than a few intriguing players down on the farm.
The slick-fielding Mason McCoy spent most of 2019 in Double-A and could have a chance to see big league action before the end of the year. He’s already made his presence felt this spring.
#Orioles prospect Mason McCoy is often regarded as a plus defender and is easy to see why after watching this play.— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) February 23, 2020
Here's McCoy on the 2019 #Orioles Top 30 Prospects list: https://t.co/tr2nCOKPUE pic.twitter.com/lKm4eO61v3
Rylan Bannon also earned an invite to big league camp. The Xavier alum packs a ton of power into a tiny frame. He made it to Triple-A last year, and may be just a few months from his first cup of big league coffee.
Then there are guys like Cadyn Grenier, who could see time in Bowie this year, Adam Hall, who has taken huge leaps forward the last two seasons, and Gunnar Henderson, a 2019 draft pick that has a long way to go before reaching Baltimore but possesses a ton of potential.
At just about every level of the minors, the Orioles have an intriguing middle infielder that could play a role on the club’s next playoff team. Meanwhile, the big league squad is in the steady hands of Iglesias and Alberto with more than enough capable back-ups in place to maintain the path for the younger players.
This is the latest example of Elias taking the boring, arduous steps necessary to put his plan into motion. As with every other aspect of this rebuild, it is impossible to know if this plan will work for several years to come. Perhaps Elias is the baseball genius that he seems to be. Only time will tell. At the very least, his moves make sense on paper.