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What are the Orioles’ plans for the infield?

Mountcastle seems entrenched at first base, but the rest of the setup is a mystery with the likes of Henderson, Urías, and Mateo able to play all over the dirt.

Detroit Tigers v Baltimore Orioles Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

The Orioles’ recent signing of Adam Frazier was simultaneously infuriating and intriguing. Although an All-Star in 2021, Frazier was poor for the Mariners last season, and while he might bounce back in 2023, he is far from the impact bat that this fan base was hoping a team with supposed playoff ambitions would attract this winter. However, at $8 million, it’s a big enough investment to suggest Frazier will enter the spring as a starter in some capacity. That clouds an infield picture that had seemed rather straightforward just days ago.

There was already a lot to like on the Orioles infield, particularly on defense. Jorge Mateo was a Gold Glove snub at shortstop in 2022, but there is no doubt about what a talented defender he is. Ramón Urías won a well-deserved Gold Glove for his performance at the hot corner, where he found a home after years of bouncing all over the Orioles’ infield. Of course, there’s also rookie Gunnar Henderson, who comes with glowing scouting reports for his abilities at both shortstop and third base. And let’s not forget about first baseman Ryan Mountcastle, who made significant strides in his first full season at the position. For his part, Frazier has received high marks for his glovework throughout his career, and what he lacks in foot speed has been made up for with positioning and reaction time.

And that’s just the obvious major leaguers. Terrin Vavra spent a lot of time on Baltimore’s bench last year, but his opportunities in the field were limited. Joey Ortiz, Jordan Westburg, and Connor Norby all finished 2022 with Triple-A Norfolk. Ortiz is the best fielder of the bunch and is now on the 40-man roster, but all three could make it to the big leagues at some point next season.

Even though there is plenty of talent in the infield picture, how all of the pieces now fit together is a bit of a mystery.

Mountcastle, while not the most valuable of the unit, does seem to be the most entrenched. Tyler Nevin and Lewin Díaz are two other first base options on the 40-man, but neither looks like a real threat to unseat the incumbent. Anthony Santander could present an intriguing option if the team doesn’t trade him. The switch-hitter routinely got work at first base during batting practice throughout the regular season, but he never got into a game.

Henderson is guaranteed to start most days. Next to Adley Rutschman, he is viewed as a franchise cornerstone for the foreseeable future. What is less clear is where he plays. Ideally, he can hold his own at shortstop, where his bat would play up even more, possibly making him the league’s premier hitter at the position. However, that would push Mateo off of his preferred position.

Mateo was a revelation at shortstop this past season. He stuck at the position all year long, using his elite foot speed to gobble up every ball in his zip code and showing off a fine arm to boot. The problem is that he stunk at the plate. Any value that his 35 stolen bases added was entirely wiped out by his 27.6% strikeout rate and an inability to walk (5.1% walk rate). That combination of top-tier defense with a bottom-rung bat is good enough in most cases, but the Orioles could have a better option in Henderson.

The other positive of Henderson at shortstop is that it enables Urías to stick at third base, where he was quietly worth seven outs above average and showed off a solid 104 wRC+ at the plate. If the 28-year-old could push his walk rate up from the 6.7% he had in 2022 closer to the 9.5% he posted in 2021, then the Orioles have an elite glove with a more passable bat at a crucial position on the field.

Frazier, it would seem, is the frontrunner to play at second base most days. In his career, he has played everywhere on the field except for first base, catcher, and pitcher, suggesting there is some positional flexibility there. But now 31 years old with the overwhelming majority of his recent experience is at second, he doesn’t really fit as a true utility type any longer. The Orioles could be hoping that a move away from Seattle’s T-Mobile Park, which is particularly tough on left-handed hitters, will do some good for Frazier.

As for the younger players, time will tell. Brandon Hyde seemed scared to deploy Vavra at second base last season, even when Rougned Odor’s numbers got worse by the day. Why would it be any different with Frazier, a seemingly better player than Odor in every countable way, now at the position? Ortiz, Westburg, and Norby could all be headed back to Norfolk for more seasoning, although you can certainly argue if that is necessary for some.

That makes the major league picture look like the starters are Mountcastle at first, Frazier at second, Urías at third, and Henderson at short with Mateo coming in and out of the lineup regularly for days off, injuries, late-inning defense, and any potential platoon advantages. And let’s say Santander sticks around as the first baseman against particularly tough lefties, a group that Mountcastle struggled with in 2022.

But perhaps that way of thinking—that is, assigning each player a set position—is medieval. Instead, the Orioles could move players around by the day, making decisions based on matchup, player fitness, etc. Playing into that could be the banning of the shift, a decision that should particularly benefit athletic middle infielders, like Mateo. That could make his defensive value skyrocket even further and any lineup excluding him feel less than optimized.

That said, the offseason isn’t over. A trade could completely shake things up. Henderson would be off limits, Frazier just signed, and Mountcastle seems unlikely to go. But just about any other name mentioned here could be moved. In fact, you could argue that Mike Elias should make a deal here.

It’s rare to get this glut of talent at one area on the field, and there are only so many innings available in Baltimore. The values of Mateo and Urías may never be higher. The odds that each of Ortiz, Westburg, and Norby turn into worthwhile major leaguers is relatively low, and they may be immediately replaced by what could be a fast-rising Jackson Holliday. Why not capitalize on the moment and turn them into a solution at a position of need for the organization, namely starting pitching?

An impact trade would also turn the perception of this offseason on its head. The Orioles have been nearly non-factors in free agency. But landing a top-of-the-rotation arm without giving up any top prospects, avoiding significant subtractions from the major league roster, and maintaining a bright outlook on the team’s future would be a coup. Bonus points would be awarded if a contract extensions could be reached with any player acquired.

But until that happens, we are left to wonder and pontificate on what the Orioles plan is to field a competitive team in 2023. The talent on the roster may be slightly upgraded from the end of the 2022 season, but it feels like division rivals have done even more to level up. That’s problematic if the Orioles actually want to make a push for October next year.