The last time Orioles third baseman Maikel Franco played was Wednesday, June 30, against the Astros. On the last play of that game, he went down awkwardly in pursuit of a foul ball and wound up limping off the field in pain as his teammates celebrated a rare win.
After several days off, Franco was penciled into the O’s lineup this past Tuesday but was scratched just hours before first pitch. Then news came down yesterday that the club was placing Franco on the 10-day injured list with a right ankle sprain.
People have been clamoring for the promotion of Jahmai Jones for weeks, and this would have been a prime opportunity to call the young man up. To support Jones’ case even more, the 23-year-old is hitting .296/.425/.500 with four home runs and six stolen bases in 108 at-bats with Norfolk.
Even though Jones doesn’t play third base, the O’s have enough flexibility at the moment to shift other players like Ramon Urias, Domingo Leyba, and Pat Valaika around on the left side of the infield and still get Jones some time at second. Not to mention, he plays the outfield too. But a popular fan theory right now is that the O’s brass doesn’t think Jones is ready defensively for the majors.
Enter third baseman Kelvin Gutierrez, who was the Orioles’ choice to replace the injured Maikel Franco.
Gutierrez recently came over from the Kansas City Royals and only had time for four minor league at-bats with the Tides before the O’s called him up. By the way, he was hitless in those four at-bats.
The Washington Nationals originally signed Gutierrez as an 18-year-old out of the Dominican Republic in 2013. Five years later, he was part of a package of players sent to the Royals for Kelvin Herrera.
The young third baseman has accrued considerable professional experience, spending parts of eight seasons in the minor leagues. Despite his sturdy frame — 6’ 2” and 215 lbs. — Gutierrez has never profiled as a power hitter, as evidenced by his .396 career slugging percentage in the minors. But the other two-thirds of his minor league career slash line aren’t bad at all, including a solid .284 batting average and a strong .346 on-base percentage.
So why doesn’t Gutierrez generate the same excitement as someone like Jahmai Jones?
First of all, Gutierrez is brand new to the organization. He was acquired less than a week ago, on July 3, from Kansas City for cash considerations. And unfortunately, once you see the word ‘cash’ on one end of a baseball transaction, it tends to diminish the excitement around the player coming back on the other end. That’s usually the case, at least.
Secondly, Gutierrez has struggled during his limited time in the majors with Kansas City. When a player like that is promoted over someone like Jahmai Jones, or before another player who’s been in the organization for a longer time, it conveys a lack of confidence in organizational guys.
The other side of that argument is that the O’s want to protect their most promising young players. So at a time when the team is not competitive, management chooses to give exposure to players who most likely won't have a future in Baltimore. As painful as it is, the term ‘placeholder’ comes to mind in this case.
But still, at 26 years old, Gutierrez isn’t over the hill yet. And although he hasn’t experienced any offensive success at the big league level — which includes a .226/.275/.309 batting line in 217 at-bats with the Royals over the past three years — he’s still relatively young and has a chance to develop further.
Comparatively speaking, Gutierrez isn’t that much of a downgrade offensively from Franco, who was hitting .221/.265/.376 before he went down with the ankle injury.
But how is Gutierrez’s defense, you might ask? A quick look at FanGraphs shows a career UZR of -5.0 and a defensive WAR of -4.4. If you subscribe to those metrics, the defense is not good.
So while Gutierrez’s professional resume is underwhelming, the O’s decided he’s the next man up, and Jahmai Jones is not. Gutierrez may get some playing time with Franco on the shelf, or he may ride the bench until the O’s decide to cut him loose or send him back down to the minors. Regardless, his promotion is yet another example of why Orioles fans must continue to practice some of the most extreme patience of any fan base in sports.