Turn the clock back five years to 2016, and there were few positions on the field for the Orioles more set than third base.
Manny Machado was there, coming along as the franchise player and snagging every ball hit his way. He played the best defense fans had seen there since Brooksie was here, and his power was growing by the year.
As far as stability at a position goes, that was as good as it gets. For the other end of the spectrum, just return those clocks to present day.
If third base were any more up for grabs, there would be an opening for it posted on Indeed. This is nothing new for the Orioles, who have dealt with question marks all over the field on an annual basis — particularly at shortstop — but the hot corner is particularly hazy going into 2022.
The man who played more games there than anyone else this year is gone. The one who played the second most spent a chunk of the season at Triple-A. No. 3 on the list, Ramon Urias, is a better fit for middle infield. No. 4, Domingo Leyba, played all of eight games there.
So, yeah. Help wanted.
This could have been easier if Maikel Franco had come in and hit like he had before. He’s never been an MVP candidate or anything, but he hit .278 with a .778 OPS in 2020 and .270/.780 in 2018, and if he had come in and done something close to that this year the O’s would probably have been thrilled to bring him back. But .210 and .609 is...well, it’s a one-way ticket off of a 52-110 baseball team, is what it is.
So, now what?
An easy idea, and maybe an attractive one, is to say that Kelvin Gutierrez passed a 47-game audition and got the part (at least for now, until spring training starts). He’s currently the only third sacker on the depth chart, and though he spent part of the season in AAA Norfolk, Gutierrez did turn in some encouraging play in his Baltimore stint. His defense was strong, and while his .248 average was mediocre, he hit .290 in September and showed some promise at the plate.
Keeping their wagon hitched to the 27-year-old, however, might not be the direction the Orioles want to go. Gutierrez had only played 24 games in the major leagues entering this past season, and he hit only .215 with the Royals in 2021 before coming to Baltimore, walking six times in 142 plate appearances. If the Orioles are looking to bring someone in to play third, he has to at minimum be able to handle playing the position on a daily basis (like Freddy Galvis at shortstop this season). Gutierrez indicated during his Orioles time that he deserved a chance, but the front office may not agree.
A wild card for the infield is Jorge Mateo, and he may yet prove to be the answer at third base. Mateo gave the Orioles a jolt this season, and finished with a .280 average in 116 plate appearances. His talents jumped off the screen for those watching at home; extra-base power, plus truly game-changing speed. He’s a unique player, and one who when playing well gave the Orioles lineup another dimension.
The problem is two-fold: A) he has the same history of struggling offensively that Gutierrez does, and B) his position of comfort is more shortstop than third base, where he played one game last year. Mateo’s versatility, performance last season and status as a utility player puts him right in the heart of the conversation, but with only nine games at third in his career versus 23 at second base and 18 at shortstop, it may be too risky to let him take over there full time.
Ideally, Rylan Bannon would be ready to take over, but after a disappointing season at Triple-A Norfolk he likely needs another year of development. Tyler Nevin cracked the big leagues last year after a down season at Norfolk, and with 37 games at third base in the minors last year, he could be pulling ahead in the race.
Then again, the signs could be pointing to the Orioles doing the plan they’ve done at shortstop, which is to sign someone to man the fort for a year before prospects like Bannon, Nevin, Gunnar Henderson or Coby Mayo are ready.
The player would almost certainly be cheap; someone like Brandon Drury comes to mind, who made $1.55 million last year with the Mets and who has 15-20 home run pop, though his average has dipped in recent seasons. Matt Duffy, who batted .287 with a .738 OPS while making $1 million for the Cubs last year, is another option.
Suffice to say, Mike Elias has a few paths available to him this season. Someone will be at third base for the Orioles next spring, but at this point, it’s anyone’s guess who that will be.