For most fanbases, this would have been “a snorefest of an offseason.” But the long-suffering Baltimore faithful have been nothing if not patient during this rebuild, so we knew just what the deal was. Team goals: pitching, pitching, and more pitching. Continue to build up a roster of cheap, young talent. And not spend a lot of money.
Plugging holes in the infield with a pair of solid-fielding veterans on inexpensive one-year contracts—2019 Gold Glover Yólmer Sánchez, one-year, $1 million, and 31-year-old Freddy Galvis, one-year, $1.5 million—counted as news this winter. These were steps in the right direction … even as steps necessitated only by the team’s cutting ties with several well-liked infielders to save money a couple months before. José Iglesias, Hanser Alberto, and Renato Núñez all had their moments with this team. But Orioles brass decided they’d had their audition, and it was OK to let them walk.
So… where does that leave third base? It’s not that the current owner of the job has been statistically superior, or more dominant at the position than those the Orioles traded, cut, or let walk this winter. But Rio Ruiz is pre-arbitration eligible and costing the Orioles about 1/40th of Chris Davis in 2021. And there aren’t a ton of 3B prospects a-knocking in the Orioles farm system right now.
Over a year ago, this blog felt that the jury was out on the inconsistent third baseman. A few months ago, a short 2020 season had just ended and Ruiz still had “more to prove.” Look, Ruiz is still just 26, and he’s played just over a full season’s worth of games as an Orioles (188). (Though others—see Núñez, Renato, and Alberto, Hanser— were cut with better numbers and about the same time to show their stuff.) But after he slashed .232/.306/.376 in 2019 and .222/.286/.427 in 2020, you do start to worry that he’s hit his ceiling. Ruiz’s glove has been serviceable, but at the plate, he is so, so streaky.
Currently, the Orioles have four third basemen listed on the 40-man roster: Ruiz, Pat Valaika, Tyler Nevin, and Rylan Bannon. Dig down to the Top-30 prospects list, and there’s just one more: an untested 2020 draft pick, 19-year-old Coby Mayo.
At this point, less than a month away from the season (we hope), the priority should be on signing a fifth starter, not adding a third baseman. So this really might be it. Valaika, who hit .277 with 39 hits in 141 at-bats in 2020, deserves the utility job. He was great in 2020 in a limited role. But his lack of defensive range means he should not be considered a threat to Ruiz for the everyday job.
Rylan Bannon, whom this blog called the Orioles “most overlooked” prospect back in October, is kind of poised to do his thing, though MLB still has him ranked just outside of the Orioles Top-20 prospects. After making his way to Baltimore in the 2018 Manny Machado trade, Bannon’s offensive numbers earned him a trip to Norfolk, where he slashed .317/.344/.549 in 20 games. But even though the Orioles shielded him from the Rule 5 draft this offseason, Bannon’s lost 2020 leaves him with all of 20 games of Triple-A service on which to make a case for the big-league roster. This seems a little light for the likes of Mike Elias, so Bannon will probably start the season at Norfolk, with a good chance of promotion later.
The 23-year-old Tyler Nevin is also intriguing, but raw. The son of current Yankees third-base coach Phil Nevin, Tyler not surprisingly is known for his outstanding eye at the plate and an ability to make contact and hit for average. Unfortunately, injuries kept him off the field for nearly all of 2016, 2017, and a lot of 2018. He stayed healthy in 2019, but in 130 games with Colorado’s Double-A Hartford Yard Goats his numbers were just so-so. It’s hard to think Elias would just hand him the starting third base job based on that resume, even if he has a stellar spring.
Look, it really may be too soon to close the book on Rio Ruiz. If he turns the corner in 2021 and starts hitting like the stud he’s occasionally been, I’d be ecstatic. For now, though, it’s fair to say that he’s been the lucky beneficiary of a thin talent pool and an organization in no hurry to sign anybody flashy or expensive. There are a few knocks on the horizon, but come spring, the hot corner job seems solidly his to man, for better or worse.