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Orioles positional preview: Infield

Baltimore’s infield will look very different from Opening Day last year, and the club will hope to find a diamond in the rough this season as they buy time for top position prospects.

MLB: Game One-Toronto Blue Jays at Baltimore Orioles
Orioles infielder Ramon Urias makes a relay throw to first against the Blue Jays at Camden Yards on September 11, 2021.
Daniel Kucin Jr.-USA TODAY Sports

There weren’t many positives happening in regards to the Orioles’ infield last year, especially at the plate. As a unit, they batted a collective .228/.289/.365; numbers that can surely be improved upon this year.

While O’s fans await the next wave of exciting infield prospects from the minors, camp in Sarasota is filled with stop gaps, low risk, and under-the-radar players.

Basically, it’s a wide open competition for both middle infield spots, with platoons possible in multiple places across the dirt. And while the third base job may be leaning one way, first base is the most solidified position on the infield.

Important to note, there are a few rule changes heading into the MLB regular season. Rosters have expanded from 26 to 28 players for April, and there’s no limit on the number of pitchers. So while the Orioles may carry an extra bench player from the following group, there’s no guarantee said player will stick around past April when rosters shrink.

Before we cover the infielders who are present, let’s mention those who aren’t. Gone is Maikel Franco, who appeared in 99 games at third base last year for the O’s. Freddy Galvis was last year’s Opening Day shortstop. Rio Ruiz, who made the club as a second baseman last spring, hasn’t been around for a while. And let’s not forget Pat Valaika, who appeared at every position on the infield — except catcher — but played mostly second base. The catchers this year are all new, too.

As far as first base is concerned, the O’s have that position covered better than the rest of the infield. Trey Mancini and Ryan Mountcastle should split those duties.

Fans and pundits alike are waiting to see if 25-year-old Mountcastle can take his game to the next level. In 144 games last year, he hit .255/.309/.487 with 33 home runs, 23 doubles, one triple, and four stolen bases. He’ll look to build on that stat line entering his third season in the majors.

Mountcastle struggled in in April last year — when he batted .198/.229/.286 — so it’ll be interesting to see how he fares in the early going this year. And if his deployment this spring is any indication, Mountcastle’s days in the outfield are over.

In fact, the Orioles have been playing Trey Mancini — who recently avoided an arbitration hearing — in the outfield more frequently this spring. Maybe they are showcasing Mancini’s positional flexibility in an attempt to build trade interest. There’s a chance he’ll be shipped off by midseason, in which case a lot of at-bats would be available to a younger player, perhaps. But Trey should still see time at first base in addition to DH and the outfield.

Another player who could be flipped around the trade deadline is new acquisition Rougned Odor. After spending the first seven years of his career in Texas, Odor struggled last year as a member of the Yankees with a .665 OPS and a batting average that barely cracked .200. But he’s also a left-handed bat with pop entering his ninth MLB season. Currently operating on a one-year, $700,000 contract, Odor is 1-for-20 this spring with one walk and five strikeouts.

While O’s manager Brandon Hyde appreciates flexibility with his infielders, that doesn’t seem to apply in Odor’s case. In a recent Zachary Silver piece about Odor’s role with the O’s, the 28-year-old infielder described his experience playing third base last year as “uncomfortable.” So if he makes the ball club, he’s ticketed for mostly second base.

Then there’s Ramon Urias, who was sneaky good for the O’s last year while playing shortstop, second, and a bit at third. In 262 total at-bats, he put up a .279 BA and .361 OBP. While he’s not going to hit a ton of home runs, Urias has plate patience and solid contact skills, plus he won’t kill you in the field. In eight Grapefruit League games, Urias is 8-for-20 with three home runs and two doubles.

Kelvin Gutierrez seems primed to start the season at the hot corner for Baltimore. Acquired from the Royals last July, Gutierrez played 47 games with the O’s in 2021 and hit .248/.327/.336. He showed a nice glove and strong arm in the field last year, and so far this spring, he’s started seven games at third and two games at first. For what it’s worth, he’s batting .364/.481/.682 in Sarasota with more walks than strikeouts.

Speedster Jorge Mateo, who is currently listed under outfielders on the Orioles official roster, provided plenty of excitement late last season. Claimed off of waivers from the Padres on August 5, 2021, Mateo played mostly shortstop and second base for the O’s. In 32 games, he hit .280 with five stolen bases and a 102 OPS+.

The Orioles can’t hide Mateo in the minors anymore without his permission, so he’ll have to make the Opening Day roster or be exposed to waivers. The Birds have given him a lot of shortstop this spring, and he’s been hitting the cover off the ball recently.

There are also several non-roster infielders making their case for the 28-man roster. And at least two have a decent shot of heading north with the club.

Former Athletics prospect and Orioles Rule 5 draft pick Richie Martin is looking to establish himself after a few turbulent years. He joined the Orioles in December 2018 with the reputation of a slick fielding shortstop, but he’s struggled mightily at the plate. In 2019, his rookie year, Martin managed an OPS+ of just 53. In limited action with the Birds last year, his OPS+ was 52.

Yet there’s a ton of buzz around Martin in Sarasota this spring. Even so, he’ll have to do a lot more than destroy Grapefruit League pitching this season if he wants to stick around Baltimore.

Chris Owings is a steady veteran presence who came aboard just a few weeks ago. He’s played for four different clubs before the O’s, with the bulk of his career coming with the Diamondbacks. A career .243/.288/.372 hitter, the 30-year-old Owings can play second, short, and some outfield. Originally a dark horse candidate to make the team, Owings has been solid at the plate this spring and could break camp with the Birds.

The only catcher on Baltimore’s 40-man roster at the moment is 37-year-old Robinson Chirinos, who joined the club last month on a one-year, $900,000 contract. He brings a career .231/.325/.432 slash line to the table, and plenty of experience from his 10-plus years in the majors. Chirinos figures to be the everyday catcher to start the year, but those duties could be handed to Adley Rutschman over the next month or two, depending on how his triceps injury heals.

That means someone will have to backup Chirinos for the time being. Candidates include non-roster invitees Beau Taylor, Anthony Bemboom, and Jacob Nottingham. The former two are 32 years old, and the latter is 27. None of them have a career OPS over .700 in the majors.

Expect plenty of mixing and matching across the infield once the regular season starts. There could be rotations or platoons at multiple spots, so just because someone is getting playing time early on doesn’t mean they will in a few months.

Again, the Orioles have assembled an infield of mostly stop gap players, excluding Mountcastle and Mancini, in an effort to get them over the hump until the real position prospects matriculate to the majors. If the O’s are lucky, maybe one of their low risk infield acquisitions distances himself from the pack and proves capable of hanging around for the long haul.