It’s a familiar place for an Orioles fan to be: on the cusp of a new baseball season, full of perennial spring hope, and then you read the mainstream press to find … derision. As usual, springtime Orioles-bashing is in full force. Not that Baltimore diehards are putting money on a playoff run by this team, of course, but as usual, there’s so much noise about the Orioles’ 0.0%—make that 0.1%!—chance of making the playoffs that it drowns out even the positives.
Some of those positives: a resurgent farm system with exciting talent a season or two, maybe, from the majors. Some really exciting bats in the lineup—the switch-hitting Anthony Santander, the right-handed power of Ryan Mountcastle, Trey Mancini looking—incredibly—back to his usual form, Austin Hays, who had a monster spring. Those close to the team see the outfield as the prize of the roster, followed by a bullpen that keeps losing parts to trade or injury, yet still somehow keeps chugging along. The starting rotation could be trash or be treasure (or a mix), but truthfully, it’s a heck of a lot more inspiring to see dark horses and prospects with a chance to be good than to watch Yovani Gallardo, Gabriel Ynoa, or Ubaldo Jiménez out there every fifth day.
Which leaves the infield. Granted, Maikel Franco, Freddy Galvis, Trey Mancini and Pedro Severino are no Machado-Hardy-Schoop-Davis (Davis circa 2015), but they’re projected to do fine, if not spectacular. As for second, well. When it’s five days before Opening Day and your team goes and DFA’s the starting second baseman (Yólmer Sánchez), it seems that all is not well in Birdland. “I think we’re concerned about pitching innings,” O’s GM Mike Elias delicately explained of the last-minute move, which allowed the team to add Cleveland veteran Adam Plutko to the 40-man. “The flip side to that is we have a tremendous homegrown outfield that we’re starting to see and we have a lot of options there, and infield has been an area where we’ve had to bring in a lot of external parts since 2019 — almost all of the regular players have been external other than at first base.”
So what does it mean when you’re manning the least exciting position in the least exciting unit on one of the least exciting teams in the league? (And is it anything like the tree that falls in the forest … ?)
The combination of utility men Pat Valaika and Ramón Urias sharing duties at second may not get hearts racing, but my feeling is, it won’t go as badly as we might think. For comparative perspective, take a look at some of the infielders who have gotten significant playing time with the Orioles in recent seasons. Consider a full season of Richie Martin, who hit .208 with a 55 OPS+ in 120 games in 2019 as the Orioles’ primary shortstop. Or Rio Ruiz’s .232 average and .376 slugging over 127 games that same season at third. Or last season, when Andrew Velazquez actually led the team in at-bats at shortstop, putting up a .159 average and a downright astonishing .206 slugging and 36 OPS+ in 77 plate appearances.
With this as the baseline, Pat Valaika’s .277/.315/.474 slash line and 114 OPS+ in 2020 are a substantial upgrade. In fact, his 2020 numbers compare favorably to a couple of nice offensive seasons from recent Orioles second basemen: Jonathan Schoop’s .244/.273/.447 season in 2019 (for a 95 OPS+) and Hanser Alberto’s fun but one-dimensional .283/.306/.393 2020 season (for a 91 OPS+). This is why O’s fans started calling Valaika Pat “the Bat” last season. (Where the nickname “Bag of Milk” came from, I’m less certain.)
As a defender, Valaika has limited range, but if he’s stationed at second base rather than at shortstop, the position where he played most of his innings for the Orioles last season, the news is much better. In 2020, Valaika gets a decidedly below-average -21.4 UZR/150 at shortstop from Fangraphs, but a much-better 2.9 UZR/150 at second base, to go with a solid 10.2 UZR/150 when he played there in 2019 with the Rockies.
With Valaika a seeming lock for the utility role this spring, it was Ramón Urías who gained the most from the Orioles’ cutting ties with Sánchez. The consummate dark horse, Urías labored for a while in the Mexican League, posting an .863 in 622 games (to go with a .771 OPS in 298 minor league games). Last season, he was an August addition to the Orioles, hitting .360/.407/.560/.967 in 27 plate appearances. With that short of a resume, you have to figure the Orioles brass saw something they liked in Urías this spring that allowed him to leapfrog over Sánchez. The 26-year-old is projected to hit somewhere between .229 and .259 in 2021, while potentially getting the majority of starts at second.
With the season officially kicking off for Baltimore today, there remain plenty of “known unknowns,” roster-wise. Some publications thought the Orioles would make a last-minute signing for a better-known everyday second baseman like Rougned Odor, who just cut ties with the Texas Rangers. Personally, I’m happy enough with what I’ve seen from Valaika and Urias so far to trust them with the starting job. Both seem capable of solid contributions at the plate. Both provide versatility that’s crucial with a 14-man bullpen and a three-man bench: Pat the Bat appeared at no fewer than seven positions in 2020, while Urías has versatility “in droves,” as MLB’s Joe Trezza puts it. Plus, with Rio Ruiz sliding into a utility infield role, Chance Sisco and Pedro Severino sharing catching duties, and DJ Stewart making an eventual return from a quad injury, Brandon Hyde now has the ability to slide in a lefty bat at catcher, first, second, third, DH, and anywhere in the outfield. Not bad.
One final point in favor of the Valaika-Urías platoon (and I hope it doesn’t come off as negative if I say this): at this point in 2021, the Orioles have plenty other more pressing things to worry about.