Take a moment to think back to the 2014 American League East champion Baltimore Orioles. Actually, take several moments. Take all day if you’d like. No one could blame you.
It’s easy to get lost in the champagne celebration and the sellout crowds at Camden Yards. Perhaps you’re picturing Adam Jones wearing black and orange or Chris Davis before that contract. There are plenty of memories worth reflecting on, but there’s one group I’d like you to pay special attention to— the infield.
Platinum Gold Glove award winner Manny Machado (prior to a season-ending knee injury) and soon to be Orioles Hall of Famer J.J. Hardy made up the left side, while Davis and Machado’s buddy Jonathan Schoop managed the right. Add in former first-round pick Matt Wieters behind the dish and that’s quite the infield.
The 2021 Orioles are not expected to win the AL East. Their infield is not as talented as the group from ‘14 either. So why bring it up? To remind everyone how far a talented group can take you.
The Orioles could win the division this season and it still would not qualify as the story of the year. Trey Mancini will lock up that honor after the first pitch on Opening Day. Mancini insists he feels great after missing the entire 2020 season battling colon cancer, and he will be given every opportunity to play first base when healthy.
O’s skipper Brandon Hyde said he plans to check in with Mancini on a daily basis. The Notre Dame product will be given the occasional day off and will also serve as the designated hitter from time to time. Fortunately, production should not drop off when Mancini is out of the lineup.
Ryan Mountcastle will begin the season as one of the favorites in the AL Rookie of the Year competition. Mountcastle exceeded expectations after making his long-awaited debut last season. The 24-year-old slashed .333/.386/.492 with 5 homers and 23 RBIs through 35 games. Mountcastle spent 25 of those games in left field, but the other 10 at first.
A healthy Davis would factor into the conversation, but the aging slugger will begin the season on the 60-day injured list. It’s unknown if/when Davis will return this season, but he can only play first base.
The Orioles appeared to establish their double play combination early with the signings of Freddy Galvis and Yolmer Sanchez. Sanchez arrived in Sarasota as a former Gold Glove winner and clear-cut favorite to play second base on Opening Day. Instead, the Orioles waived Sanchez after he produced a miniscule .451 OPS this spring.
Utility men Pat Valaika and Ramón Urias were both recently informed that they will head north with the club. Valaika always appeared to have a place on the roster, but the O’s clearly prioritized Urias over Sanchez. With a short bench, Baltimore will benefit from having multiple players that can handle shortstop. These two could share second base duties early on, but both players will have an opportunity to claim the position with average defense and production at the plate.
Prospects Rylan Bannon and Jahmai Jones were both considered long shots to break camp with the team, and neither did enough to force the issue. Still, Baltimore liked Bannon enough to place him on the 40-man prior to the last Rule 5 draft, and the club wants to see what Jones can bring to the table. Do not be surprised to see either this season, especially if Valaika and Urias struggle.
Rio Ruiz played second base in two of the O’s’ final spring training games. Ruiz has served as the full time third baseman the last two seasons, but failed to produce consistently at the plate. Sure, there’s been flashes, but last year’s .222 average paired with a slow start this spring force Mike Elias’s hand.
The Orioles signed Maikel Franco to a major league deal on March 16. Franco broke in as a heralded prospect for the Phillies in 2014 and has been a starting third baseman since 2016. Franco slashed .278/.321/.457 while playing all 60 games last season, and is a career .252/.304/.433 hitter.
The Orioles signed Franco to be their every day third baseman, but there is always a chance his arrival could light a fire under Ruiz. If Franco hits well enough to be traded at the deadline, expect Ruiz or Bannon to finish off the year in Baltimore.
As I mentioned earlier, the Orioles appeared to have their middle infield set early on. Unlike Sanchez, Galvis will still start for the Orioles on Thursday. Galvis is a glove first, budget friendly shortstop that fits the current makeup of the team. He’s a .247/.291/.385 hitter who bounced around after several years in Philadelphia.
Galvis likely won’t match the surprise production that Jose Iglesias offered last season, but he’s a stopgap at short. Valaika and Urias are both options, and former Rule 5 pick Richie Martin could show up at some point.
Pedro Severino and Chance Sisco will round out the infield behind the dish. It was never a question of which catchers would make the team, but playing time remains up for grabs. Severino dominated last August with a .313/.382/.463 but fell off a cliff in September. Sisco has yet to live up to expectations, but he’s shown an ability to get on base. The DH slot can keep both bats in the lineup if it is ever warranted, but both players have plenty to prove before that becomes relevant.
Austin Wynns remains in the organization and will add depth behind the plate. Top prospect Adley Rutschman will dominate headlines throughout the season, but the 23-year-old still has a few hurdles to clear in the minors. At best, Rutschman could pop up in September, but 2022 appears more likely at this point.
This infield may lack the star power of the 2014 squad, but it will be fun to follow. The Orioles would love to see Franco and Galvis perform well enough to generate a few phone calls at the end of July. The club will monitor the progress of Jones, Bannon and Martin, while fans can dream of seeing Rutschman at Camden Yards.
The Orioles have already made a few surprising moves by signing Franco and cutting bait with Sanchez. The club elected to move on from Iglesias, Hanser Alberto and Renato Núñez. How will this year stack up to 2020, and how different will the infield look by the end of the year? Stay tuned.