When analyzing the Orioles’ infield for this coming season, you unfortunately have to start with the bad news.
Jonathan Villar turned in a heck of a season for Baltimore last year. He played every game, he batted .274, he presented a speed and power option (40 steals, 24 home runs) and he was aces in the intangibles category as well, providing a boost of energy on a team that, despite its record, seemed to carry itself with more life and vigor than 2018’s sad sack crew.
Well, he’s in Miami now, and there’s no question the O’s will miss his contributions. There’s no immediate answer for the hole left by last year’s team leader in runs and hits.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the infield for the Birds is devoid of storylines coming into this season.
Three quick ones jump to the front of the list. The first is Hanser Alberto, and his quest to prove himself as more than a one-year wonder. That one year was pretty special; Alberto was one of the American League’s best contact hitters from beginning to end last season, batting .305 and hitting an unreal .398 against left-handers. He was a breath of fresh air given the Orioles’ recent penchant for all-or-nothing hitters, striking out only 50 times in 524 at-bats and seemingly always providing Baltimore with a quality at-bat.
So that’s the good part. The bad part — or perhaps more fitting, the question mark — is the track record. Alberto was a .192 hitter in 89 career games coming into the season, and had been bouncing around in waivers before sticking in Baltimore and finding his new form at age 26.
Alberto’s desire to prove 2019 was more than a fluke will be a narrative worth monitoring. The projections aren’t too encouraging, for what it’s worth; ZiPS has him falling to a .280 average and his WAR going from 1.9 to 0.5, and Baseball-Reference.com had him batting only .234 through this point in the season.
The second storyline is Jose Iglesias, who was the highest-profile pickup by the O’s this season. The 30-year-old shortstop is a defensive wiz, and has developed from the all-glove, no-bat Red Sox prospect into a decent contact hitter who batted .300 in 2015 with Detroit and .288 with 11 home runs for Cincinnati last year.
He was brought in to be a sure-handed player at a pivotal position for the Orioles’ young pitchers, but a season like the ones he’s put together recently would make him a strong two-way pickup for general manager Mike Elias. ZiPS sees a dip coming, with Iglesias pegged for a drop from .288 to .267, but he looked right at home in his first appearances in orange and black, batting .389 in seven spring training games before COVID hit.
The third storyline is Chris Davis, who had all the indications of being a lost cause the last two years, but who suddenly came through with a spring that had Orioles fans buzzing before the shutdown. Davis looked like the intimidating slugger who earned the albatross contract he has now, batting .467 in 15 at-bats. He hit three home runs, and was perhaps the team’s most uplifting story of the spring.
Obviously, spring training is not always an accurate forecast for regular season performance, especially when there’s a four-month off period immediately following, but the idea that Davis could salvage his career or at least regain a percentage of his ability is intriguing, and would go a long way in replacing the production lost with Trey Mancini’s absence.
Those are the three key topics, but there are other narratives worth following. Like Alberto, third baseman (but, primarily, designated hitter) Renato Nunez will do his best to repeat a 2019 season that saw him unexpectedly become a threat at the plate, and in his case, a quality power hitter in the American League. He drilled 31 home runs and drove in 90 runs, after hitting only nine with 26 RBI in 90 career games going in.
ZiPS projections like his chances of maintaining that level of play, pegging him at a .458 slugging percentage (two points lower than last year) and .763 OPS (eight points lower).
The third base spot will likely go to Rio Ruiz, who showed flashes last season but will be looking to put it together over the course of a whole year. Ruiz finished with 12 home runs and 46 RBI while compiling a .232 batting average and .682 OPS.
Ruiz will look to replicate what was working for him after a midseason trip to the minors. After returning on Aug. 10, Ruiz struggled with his average but found a power stroke, hitting seven home runs and posting a .779 OPS in 38 games. His start to this season indicated he had kept some of that form, as he batted .440 over 25 spring at-bats. He’ll have another opportunity to show what he can do, at least as far as a 60-game season can provide.
The most intriguing name at the catcher position is Adley Rutschman, the first overall pick in the 2019 draft, but his Baltimore debut is still likely a year away. For now, the Orioles will likely have a stable behind the plate of Pedro Severino, Chance Sisco and either Austin Wynns or Bryan Holaday.
As for who will get the majority of starts, that’s up in the air. Severino was the better player last year, but Sisco could do a better job of pushing him and perhaps even overtake him for starts and at-bats this season. ZiPS sees Sisco being the better choice; it has him climbing from a .210 average to .234, while Severino is pegged for a slide from .249 to .228, with his slugging percentage dropping from .420 to .368.
In OPS, Severino topped Sisco .740 to .729 last year, but ZiPS sees it being a reversal this season, with Sisco beating his teammate .725 to .656. With Rutschman’s arrival a matter of time, the pressure has never been greater for Sisco to live up to his promise.
Depth options at the infield positions include a couple of light-hitting and versatile utility players in Stevie Wilkerson (though a recently fractured finger could rule him out) and Andrew Velazquez, who could also play the outfield. Also in the mix is Pat Valaika, who came over from Colorado and has playing experience at all four non-catcher positions. Dilson Herrera was also included in the July 60-player pool and could crack the opening day roster, providing backup at second base.
Richie Martin is unavailable for the season after wrist surgery, and Ryan Mountcastle could see looks in the infield, but is primarily considered an option for the outfield.