It’s hard to find a team with a bigger disparity in the statuses of its infield and outfield than Baltimore as the 2021 season approaches.
For the Orioles, the outfield is the known commodity. It’s deep. There are familiar names and faces at all three spots. You have a good idea of what you’re getting, because you’ve seen it before.
The infield? Different story. Question marks are everywhere. As spring training approaches — less than a month until pitchers and catchers, people — both of the corner and up-the-middle spots appear primed to feature a new name in a starring role, or a fixture with an air of mystery and uncertainty surrounding his 2021 performance.
In a way, it mimics the Orioles teams from before the 2012-2016 renaissance, when the outfield (Adam Jones, check. Nick Markakis, check) was the reliable backbone of the team, and the foundation from which a winner could, and ultimately did, grow.
The O’s have inconspicuously built a solid group there again, led by Anthony Santander, who was looking like an out-of-nowhere MVP candidate in the shortened COVID season before an oblique injury limited him to 37 of 60 games. Even so, he managed to finish eighth in the American League in extra-base hits, and his stats over the season play out to 48 home runs and 140 RBI over 162 games.
No one expects anything close to those numbers or for Santander to be an MVP candidate this season, but he can take a dip from the level he was at last year and still be a more-than-viable everyday outfielder.
The outfield’s strength isn’t limited to him, however. Ryan Mountcastle in left has a real chance for Rookie of the Year after batting .333 with an .878 OPS last year. Center field is a checkmark with Austin Hays and Cedric Mullins, both of whom hit over .270, sharing time. There’s upside still with DJ Stewart, and hyped prospect Yusniel Diaz could be on the brink of a big-league debut.
That’s not to say the Orioles are loaded there, but they don’t have glaring holes, and there are options on the fringe who could supplant already solid options. Take the Yasiel Puig rumors that are out there. A couple of years ago, he would have been an immediate upgrade had they signed him. Now, the Orioles can say he’d be getting in the way of some up-and-comers, and do so with a straight face.
Now, compare that to the infield.
The Orioles completely took apart their double play combination, and might be only halfway done with reassembling it. With Hanser Alberto gone, second base will likely be manned by Yolmer Sanchez, who won a Gold Glove with the White Sox in 2019 and provides the O’s with a defensive upgrade, if not an offensive one.
Shortstop, meanwhile, is anyone’s guess. Going with an in-house plan means promoting Pat Valaika to full-time starter, or going with Richie Martin, who hasn’t played since hitting .208 two seasons ago and who was considered an option to start last year in Triple-A Norfolk. The other path is a signing, which would give the Orioles a new starting shortstop for the third time in three years.
The corners feature some familiar names, but the mixed-bag theme continues. Rio Ruiz is the odds-on favorite to provide some continuity at third base, but the team is certainly looking for better returns than last year’s .222 average, even if his power impressed. Trey Mancini at first is the biggest bat on the roster, continuing his remarkable and uplifting story, but it’s fair to wonder just how productive he’ll be in his first season back from his battle with colon cancer. Meanwhile, Chris Davis is Chris Davis.
The end result is an infield and outfield that, for manager Brandon Hyde, present completely different outlooks. He can sleep easy knowing what he has with the outfield; it’s not perfect and is hopefully improving, but he can bank on a level of play from most of the players there. Who knows what the ceiling will be with that group. The floor, however, is pretty much known.
The infield is different. How will Sanchez fit in? Who will be at shortstop? Will Ruiz hang on to the starting job at third? Does Mancini have some Eric Davis in him as far as a quick return to form? If not, what does that do to the lineup? Is there help coming from the minors? If so, where and when?
That’s not to say the infield is a weakness. The Orioles had no answer at shortstop entering last offseason, took their time and got someone who batted .373. Sanchez is an above-average player who could give the O’s plus defense and some added offense if Camden Yards helps him out the way it tends to with hitters. Mancini could be back swinging like he never left.
The infield’s just a wild card. The outfield, meanwhile, is pretty steady. How big a strength both end up being remains to be seen.