Once the initial excitement wears off, the storylines in spring training tend to shrink up a bit. Adley Rutschman has said all of the right things during his first Major League camp. Another wave of stories have circulated regarding the advanced analytics the Elias administration has introduced, and Chris Davis is back and ready to give this thing another try.
After that, it’s easy to sober up from that spring training buzz. The Orioles are still in the middle stages of a rebuild, and there’s no division title on the horizon. The games take place during the day, and the scores are not significant. It’s still early enough to blame initial struggles on rust, and attribute strong performances to some sort of mismatch.
Instead of overanalyzing box scores and small sample sizes, I’ve always found this part of spring training as a perfect time to look ahead. What are the Orioles looking to accomplish this season, and what will help them get it done?
The primary focus of any rebuild consists of player development and talent evaluation. As prospects work their way up in the minors, the Orioles will be taking stock of any “placeholder” with a roster spot. The Orioles have brought in plenty of fringe Major Leaguers in hopes that the cream rises to the top, but how can they maximize the amount of opportunities they provide players?
The best way to evaluate talent is to have it on the field. The Orioles will complete their first talent appraisals this spring, but the majority of players will be under the microscope all season. So what will help Baltimore accomplish its goal? Defensive versatility.
When guys can handle more than one position, it increases the number of lineups available for Brandon Hyde. The more lineup combinations, the easier it is to get eyes on multiple players.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting the Orioles ask a majority of their guys to play multiple positions. I know that enough of the roster has an issue locking down just one spot. But defensive versatility can have a direct effect on a rebuild.
Fans have vented for years that Trey Mancini should not be repeatedly dispensed to the outfield. Mancini naturally profiles as a first baseman, but Davis’s albatross of a contract has required Mancini to adapt to the green grass.
If Mancini could not at least disguise himself as a serviceable outfielder, the Notre Dame product and Davis would have always tied up first base and designated hitter all last season. (Yes, I realized Baltimore could just bench Davis, but that’s a chat for another day).
Mancini’s ability to play right field opened up the DH spot. This vacancy directly resulted in former waiver claim Renato Núñez blossoming into an impressive power hitter.
Last season, Núñez served as the designated hitter in 110 games. He played first base for 22, and manned the hot corner only eight times. The Venezuela native slashed .244/.311/.460, hit 31 bombs, and now the O’s have a twenty-five-year-old slugger with some real potential.
Flash forward to 2020, and the O’s are hoping Núñez can return the favor. The Orioles have already started Núñez at third base this spring, and Brandon Hyde has said publicly that he hopes Núñez could stick there. Playing third base is extremely difficult, and there’s no guarantee he’ll log significant time at the spot, but Núñez proving he can handle the hot corner would go a long way for roster flexibility. The versatility would be especially appreciated if Rio Ruiz struggles and whenever Ryan Mountcastle makes his long awaited debut.
Sticking with third base, the position played an integral role in another 2019 breakout season. Hanser Alberto took third 61 times during his coming out party last season. Alberto played a majority of his games (84) at second base, but his ability to play third kept his bat in the lineup. Alberto surprised many with a .305/.329/.422 slash line and absolutely scorched lefties with a .398 average against LHP.
Richie Martin’s Rule 5 status paired with Jonathan Villar’s Ironman approach put middle infield time at a premium. Villar played in every game last season, and there’s no doubt that Alberto’s breakout year would have suffered if he could not play multiple spots.
The desire for utility is not limited to the infield. Any outfielder’s stock immediately rises if he possesses the ability to man all three spots. Anthony Santander does not profile as a center fielder, but the former Rule 5 pick took center stage 22 times last season.
While Santander projects as a starter, any fourth outfielder must posses an ability to play all three spots. Cedric Mullins and Dwight Smith Jr. figure to be in the mix along with Mason Williams, but Santander’s talent could afford the O’s to take a longer look at DJ Stewart once he returns from injury.
The Orioles have several guys vying for the “utility” role, but flexibility from everyday starters would also go a long way. Starting guys out of position should never be the goal, and I realize there’s nothing appealing about watching an overmatched player kick the ball around in a spot he doesn’t belong (especially when outs can be hard to come by). But when talent evaluation is necessary, and winnings is still not strategically relevant, some sacrifices can be made.
The Orioles will be looking for their next Alberto or Núñez in 2020, and defensive versatility could just be the key in finding them.