The Orioles began the 2021 season with Pat Valaika pegged as the starting second baseman. Yolmer Sanchez was the early favorite at the position after Baltimore claimed him from Chicago last October, but the Orioles released Sanchez after they acquired reliever Adam Plutko at the end of March.
Releasing Sanchez showed that the club was comfortable with Valaika at second, but also represented the team’s desire to see what another utility man had to offer. Ramón Urías broke camp with the team after posting a .360/.407/.560 slash line through 10 games in 2020. Baltimore knew Urías could not reproduce that line, but they were clearly intrigued by the then 26-year-old.
Urías hit just .154 through March and April, but made the most of his limited playing time in May (6-for-17). Still, the Orioles optioned Urías half way through the month. Urías rejoined the club for a brief stretch in early June, but Baltimore still favored Valaika after a failed experiment with Rio Ruiz.
Things changed for Urías when starting shortstop Freddy Galvis injured his leg when attempting to beat out a bunt single against the Blue Jays. I was at the game in Buffalo when Galvis went down, and it was immediately clear that he would miss time. Rylan Bannon and Jahmai Jones received some hype prior to the season, and utility man Stevie Wilkerson was already on the roster, but it made sense for Urías to return for his third stint with the Birds.
The Orioles recalled Urías the next day, but another move came as a surprise. The Orioles returned Wilkerson to Norfolk and designated him for assignment a few days later. Baltimore also promoted recent waiver claim Domingo Leyba.
It was time for Urías and Leyba to prove their worth at the major league level. Leyba mashed Triple-A pitching, but he simply could not catch on in the bigs. He hit just .115 over 87 at bats, and his defense did not justify a spot in the lineup.
While Leyba fizzled out, Urías made the most of the opportunity. Urías hit safely in his first three games, and backed up the strong start with a .313/.368/.388 slash line over 25 games in July. He quickly solidified his role as the starting shortstop for the Orioles.
Urías kept the spot when Baltimore managed to trade an injured Galvis, and he remained a staple in the lineup until a right adductor strain ended his season in late September. Urías finished the season with a .279/.361/.412 slash line over 85 games (73 starts). His 2.0 WAR practically made him a unicorn on the 2021 roster, and he looked the part defensively at multiple positions.
Andrea SK wrote an appreciation post for Urías at the end of September. She pointed out how favorably Urías compared to fellow waiver claims, and lauded his on-base percentage (second on the team!). He hit .348 with runners in scoring position, and posted a strong 9.5% walk rate.
The emergence of Urías ranks high on the list of positives from the 2021 season. His ability to play multiple positions almost ensures a spot on the Opening-Day roster, but Urías could seize either of the double-play positions with a strong spring.
Baltimore should sign another free agent like Galvis, but he would not have to start every game. The O’s need to see what Jorge Mateo can deliver over a full season, and Kelvin Gutierrez or another free agent could win the job at third. Regardless, there is a spot for Urías if he performs like he did last year.
Urías signed a minor-league deal as a 17-year-old a decade ago. The Mexican native finally broke through with the Orioles, and there’s no doubt that he wants to stay in the bigs. He will not be arbitration eligible until 2024 and would remain under team control until 2027. He projects as an extremely affordable piece and one of great value if he plays to his potential.
Jordan Westburg, Gunnar Henderson and Joey Ortiz are still a ways away from making it to the show. Urías should have every opportunity to prove he belongs. His on-base skills are a welcome addition, and defensive versatility will always benefit a player.
It’s far too early to anoint him the shortstop of the future, but there is reason to be excited about Urías moving forward. Next season should speak volumes on his long-term status as a major leaguer.
Tomorrow: Dean Kremer