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The Orioles must pick a utility infielder and fill an extra roster spot

Spring training will help the Orioles decide who will back up at the middle infield positions and how they approach the 26th man rule.

MLB: Spring Training-Baltimore Orioles at Philadelphia Phillies David Dermer-USA TODAY Sports

Orioles GM Mike Elias likes to mention that spring training stats are not as reliable as the regular season. That’s the same philosophy that he’ll probably apply as he’s trying to figure out who should be a utility infielder or superutility player for the 2020 Orioles.

Even if spring training statistics mattered over a larger sample, the presence of so many candidates for a utility role has meant that none of them are among the players getting the most playing time in O’s camp so far.

The middle infield spots are likely going to look different this year than last year even without getting into who plays a backup role. Now that Richie Martin has shed his Rule 5 status, he may be optioned to the minors. There will also have to be a replacement for Jonathan Villar, who played in all 162 games for the O’s last season between shortstop and second base, since Villar got traded.

The Orioles will need someone to step up in the middle infield. At the moment, free agent addition Jose Iglesias is slotted in at shortstop and Alberto is penciled in at second. So who can back up those spots?

Camp invitee Pat Valaika brings Hanser Alberto to mind simply because of their waiver histories. Between January 11 and March 1, 2019, Alberto — the affable lefty-killer — was claimed by the O’s, designated, and then eventually reclaimed. Over a three-month span this offseason, the same thing happened to Valaika with the Birds: two claims with a DFA sandwiched in between.

So we all know what that means, right? Valaika is the next Alberto. Or at least, it’s nice to think that way.

Valaika has three home runs this spring and in 160 career Triple-A games, he’s got a .813 OPS. Over the course of 40 games with the Rockies in 2019, Valaika also played every infield position.

Others in the competition include: Dilson Herrera, who spent last year at Triple-A in the Mets organization, recent waiver claims Andrew Velazquez and Ramon Urias, and Jose Rondon, who played in exactly one game for the 2019 Orioles. Velazquez and Urias have spots on the 40-man roster right now while Herrera, Valaika and Rondon are non-roster invitees.

Another wild card is Martin, who could insert himself into the picture for a utility role if the O’s like what they see this spring and decide that he would be better off learning in an MLB bench role rather than with regular Triple-A playing time.

As we saw in 2019 during Brandon Hyde’s first year of managing, he likes position flexibility and he’s not afraid to play someone out of their original position for more than an inning here and there. Just look at Stevie Wilkerson last year. He played quite a bit in center field and showed some inconsistency while he learned on the job.

But experience like that that can help someone like Wilkerson make the team this year because he’s a more intriguing option to be the 26th man.

One of MLB’s biggest rule changes this year is increasing active roster size from 25 to 26 players, although a team cannot carry more than 13 pitchers. Under the old rules, there was a higher chance a player like Wilkerson would get squeezed off the team before April.

There are a lot of different ways the Birds can go with this extra roster spot. They could go defense first and pick someone who can play well at multiple positions. They could carry three catchers, like Alex Church posed yesterday.

If they think they already have enough built in position flexibility, they could opt to carry another bat, like Ryan Mountcastle. It could happen, but just not until a month or two into the season at least. In a recent interview on an O’s spring game broadcast, Elias suggested the O’s would be able to fit all of Mountcastle, Chris Davis, Trey Mancini, and Renato Nunez onto the roster at the same time. This would increase the importance of having a versatile utility or superutility player to back up all of the positions those guys don’t play.

Probably the most likely scenario will be that the Orioles use the roster expansion as a taxi slot, swapping in whatever position talent makes sense at the time. The club has never showed resistance to this tactic in the past.

There are still three weeks to go until Opening Day, which is plenty of time to make some decisions based on what the coaches and staff are seeing in camp. Which of these guys will seize a role is to be determined, but we can be sure whoever wins will have shown versatility that impressed the O’s decision makers.