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What do the Orioles’ mixed signals on defensive versatility mean for Chris Owings?

The slumping utility man used his ability to play shortstop to dodge the first round of roster cuts, but can the Orioles afford to drop him now?

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Oakland Athletics D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports

It’s difficult to argue with Baltimore designating Kelvin Gutiérrez for assignment. The 27-year-old hit just .143 in 28 at bats and committed three errors in 12 games. The Orioles had little invested in the former Royal after acquiring him for cash last July and his performance did not justify a current spot on the roster.

Gutiérrez also suffered from a lack of versatility. He only played third base and his bat never warranted a turn as the designated hitter. Tyler Nevin earned an opportunity with a hot start at Triple-A, and Baltimore needs to see what they have in the 24-year-old.

Nevin boasts more defensive versatility than Gutiérrez, but the Orioles have little need for another first baseman with a healthy Trey Mancini and Ryan Mountcastle already on the roster. Nevin can handle a corner outfield spot if necessary, but the Orioles appear set to work Mancini into the outfield rotation this spring.

Defensive versatility was not enough to save fellow roster cut Ryan McKenna. The Orioles optioned McKenna to Norfolk to meet the smaller 26-man cap that kicked in this month. McKenna rates as a plus defender at all three outfield positions but Cedric Mullins, Austin Hays and Anthony Santander have all three starting jobs locked up.

McKenna appeared to be the only bench option capable of backing up all three outfield spots, a true fourth outfielder if you will, but the O’s optioned him anyway. The change in philosophy brings us to wonder what exactly Chris Owings is doing on this baseball team.

Owings entered last night’s game just 2-for-18 on the season. The 30-year-old utility man has a .111 slugging percentage and has struck out in 12 of his 21 plate appearances this year. Nobody is confusing Owings with a contributor on the next winning team, and he has yet to prove that he can be a positive participant on this one. Still, he remains with the club.

Owings appears saved solely by his ability to play shortstop. But if the Orioles are comfortable slating Hays as the backup center fielder, why can’t the club have another infielder serve as the primary backup to Jorge Mateo at short?

Mateo has played shortstop in 22 of the Orioles 24 games this season. The club only needs a spot start in relief once or twice a month at the position.

Ramon Urías played 344.1 innings at shortstop last season. He graded below average with a -1.6 UZR, but his .279/.361/.412 slash line kept his bat in the lineup. Urías has split time between second and third this season with Baltimore rotating in Rougned Odor at second base. Still, if the Birds are willing to play Urías at third to keep a guy batting .207 in the lineup, you would think they could ask for a handful of games at short.

Owings’ spot on the roster is actively taking away a place for McKenna. McKenna demonstrated an ability to perform at Triple-A with a 307/.423/.683 line in 27 games last year. The speedy outfielder appeared to turn a corner after a rocky start with five hits in his last 13 at bats.

It will not be long before roster spots are needed for players not currently on the 40-man roster. Adley Rutschman is coming. Kyle Stowers needs an opportunity at some point, and the Orioles should really see what Rylan Bannon can do at the major league level. None of those three play shortstop, but will the Orioles cling to Owings all year?

Richie Martin has slashed .224/.297/.388 with the Tides so far this season. Jordan Westburg and Gunnar Henderson are still a ways away, and Martin has done little to earn a job this year. Urías has played just two innings at shortstop in 2022 but appears to be the Birds’ best option outside of Mateo at the position.

Owings has played outfield in the past, but the Orioles have that covered with their starting trio, Mancini and Nevin. Baltimore tabbing Urías as the backup shortstop over Owings would create a roster spot for another prospect and allow necessary player assessment/development to take place this season.