When you’re on pace for 106 losses and you have the second-worst run differential in the game, your list of flaws and holes is a long one.
No position has given the Orioles less, though, than second base.
Baltimore is a -1.8 WAR at second, the worst figure in all of Major League Baseball (according to Baseball-Reference.com), and it’s the only position at which the Orioles rank last. The Birds are also last there in OPS (.566, beating the Cubs’ .604).
This is a change from the recent past, when second base was a position you could count on the Orioles to be pretty decent. Even during the dark days of the mid-2000s right up until the 2012 playoff year, you could count on All-Star production from Brian Roberts. As the Orioles were making their playoff runs, Jonathan Schoop was emerging as one of the best power-hitting second basemen in the game.
And when the current rebuild began in 2018, the most exciting and uplifting play came at that position, first from Jonathan Villar and then from feel-good story Hanser Alberto.
This season, it’s been the opposite. It’s not too surprising that second base has been a major weakness, considering the Orioles’ approach there. Baltimore really didn’t make it a priority, letting Alberto walk in the offseason and then opting to take a “let’s see how it shakes out” strategy into the season.
Plan A was former White Sox starter Yolmer Sanchez, who won a Gold Glove with Chicago in 2019 and led the American League in triples in 2018. That didn’t work; Sanchez was cut before the regular season began, ending the experiment before it really started.
Plan B was Rio Ruiz, who had shown flashes in two years with the team. Plan B didn’t work either; Ruiz batted .167 in 90 at-bats over 32 games, he was waived before the end of May and he was picked up by the Rockies.
Plans D, E and F, Pat Valaika, Stevie Wilkerson and Domingo Leyba, went much the way of their predecessors. Wilkerson was demoted to Triple-A Norfolk after hitting .167 (there’s that number again) in 30 games, and while Valaika and Leyba are still with the team, their .197 average/.533 OPS and .192 average/.557 OPS, respectively, put them right in line with the aforementioned names in terms of being a solution at second.
A Plan C was purposefully omitted. That’s the one that’s looked encouraging. Ramon Urias has brought some stability to the position, batting .274 with a .738 OPS. He played only 17 games at second before being pressed into being the shortstop after Freddy Galvis got hurt, but looked for a while like he was providing exactly what the Orioles were hoping for at that position.
What’s unclear is whether he’ll get another look at this position next year. What is clear, though, is that the Orioles will need to have more of a plan than they did this season. Second base isn’t a position where you have to have an MVP candidate. But as the Orioles are seeing this season, it can’t be a gaping hole.
The plan next year could be what many are hoping for it to be right now. Jahmai Jones is the team’s No. 16 prospect and has been holding the starting job at Triple-A Norfolk, making 35 of his 45 appearances there. He’s been playing well, batting .268 with an .832 OPS. With the Orioles’ second base deficiencies showing themselves on a nightly basis, fans have been clamoring for Baltimore to give Jones that awaited chance, but the organization has been very patient with him - perhaps even frustratingly patient.
It’s hard to tell what else the Orioles might have for an in-house plan. Terrin Vavra, a third-round pick in 2018, is the organization’s 10th-ranked prospect and is projected by MLB.com to have a 2022 ETA, and he currently has an .860 OPS with Double-A Bowie, but Baltimore may have him in mind for further down the road. GM Mike Elias hasn’t given any indication that he wants to rush this first wave of The Future to Camden Yards.
Adam Hall has experience at second base, but he’s been playing shortstop this season and posting only a .683 OPS and .251 batting average at Single-A Aberdeen, so he has some progress to make before he can be be in the starting conversation. With a surplus of high-ranking shortstop prospects in Gunnar Henderson, Jordan Westburg and Hall (ranking fifth, sixth and 11th in the organization, respectively), the Orioles may move one to second base in time and make him the heir apparent as well.
And then there’s the path the Orioles have been taking at shortstop: sign the stopgap that can come in for a year or two and hold down the job. Players like Villar and Jose Iglesias have been ideal fits for that role and Galvis was doing well before the injury, and while that approach this season fizzled at second base, it could be the way to go if the club isn’t sold on Urias or giving the job to Jones or Vavra just yet.
Whichever route the Orioles go, it has to be a more concrete plan than they tried this season. When players like Alberto fall into your lap, it can be easy to think the position is simpler to fill than it is. Instead, Baltimore has spent most of this season seeing the other side of that coin. Hopefully, one year of this has been enough for the front office to become determined to find something, anything, that can work.