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Richie Martin must make up for lost time in 2021

Richie Martin missed the duration of 2020 and the first half of spring training due to injuries. Can the former Rule 5 pick make up ground this season?

MLB: Spring Training-New York Yankees at Baltimore Orioles Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

Nobody ever wants to see a player lose a job due to injury. Richie Martin was never going to be the Orioles’ starting shortstop this season, but the 26-year-old figured to have a say in Baltimore’s utility competition prior to another costly injury.

The Orioles looked outside the organization for a starting shortstop after dealing former number three hitter José Iglesias last December. Baltimore filled that need by signing Freddy Galvis to a one-year deal, and addressed utility depth by bringing back Pat Valaika, Ramón Urías and Stevie Wilkerson.

Still, the door is always open for a former first-round draft choice that has the ability to play shortstop.

The Orioles selected Martin with the first pick of the 2018 Rule 5 player draft. While the O’s have never been shy with a Rule 5 pick, they’re not above returning a player either. Martin struggled at the plate in 2019, but Baltimore opted to keep him on the active roster. To be fair, there was not a lot of competition. Still, Baltimore’s brass envisioned a future.

The Detroit native arrived in Baltimore having never played above Double-A. After a season in the big leagues and a lost year due to a broken wrist and COVID-19, that fact has not changed.

Martin missed the beginning of this spring due to hamate bone surgery in January. He finally made his debut this week, but a last-ditch run at an Opening Day roster spot feels out of the question.

Martin appears destined for Baltimore’s alternate site prior to his long-awaited Triple-A debut. After missing over a year of baseball, that’s probably his best bet. So why the cause for concern?

The Orioles had a vested interest in keeping Martin around when he first entered the organization. They needed to keep him on the active roster, but there was no rule requiring him to play 120 games at short. Baltimore wanted to see what they had in Martin, and nobody else stood in the way. Jonathan Villar split 162 starts between shortstop and second base (plus two at designated hitter), but no one forced Martin off the block.

Things are a bit more complicated this year. While Valaika appears to be zeroing in on the Opening Day roster, Martin may be more than one spot away from the O’s dugout. Baltimore has bona fide major league middle infielders in Galvis and Yolmer Sanchez, and the utility depth has increased as well.

Wilkerson has reentered the utility conversation after missing all of 2020 with a phalanx fracture in his left ring finger, and his ability to play all three outfield spots makes him an attractive option. Baltimore’s surplus of young outfielders already creates a roster crunch, and then there’s the new kid on the block.

The Orioles acquired Jahmai Jones from the Angels in exchange for Alex Cobb. Baltimore sent Cobb and nearly $5 million dollars to Los Angeles for the Angels’ seventh rated prospect at the time.

The former second-round pick was marketed as a player with speed and strong plate discipline. He played both infield and outfield in the minor leagues, and was closer to major league ready compared to the other players Baltimore acquired last year. Jones also appears slated for the alternate camp before Norfolk, but a strong audition could lead to a call before Martin.

Martin slashed a woeful .166/.226/.282 over the first half, but bounced back with an impressive .284/.321/.392 after the break. If he plans on making it back to Baltimore, he’ll need to show a little more pop with the Tides.

The ability to play shortstop will not be enough for Martin moving forward. He must take another step at the plate to garner another chance with the Birds. Increased competition and the looming threat of capable players entering the Orioles’ system should provide a sense of urgency.

A poor showing early on could easily lead to Martin being passed up on the depth chart. Martin may seem like the forgotten infielder now, but he’s only a few months away from sealing his fate.

Martin’s goals should not end with making it back to the majors. Baltimore will have another hole at shortstop after this season, and Gunnar Henderson has a few hurdles to clear before his time comes. Is there a world where Richie Martin is the Orioles’ starting shortstop once again? This season may tell us all we need to know.