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Orioles positional preview: Infield

The talent is undeniable, but how all the pieces fit together may take some time to figure out.

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Baltimore Orioles Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Not so long ago the Orioles infield was a disaster in all facets of the game. By design, it was full of major league stopgaps that were clearly just buying time for their younger (and more talented) successors to make their way to Baltimore. But in 2022, that changed due to the arrival of two of the game’s premier prospects and surprising steps forward from a pair of waiver claims gone right.

It all starts behind the plate with Adley Rutschman. The top pick in 2019 made his long-awaited debut last year and entirely lived up to the hype. Despite his season being delayed by a forearm injury and then struggling for a bit upon his promotion, the Oregon State product still managed a .254/.362/.445 batting line for the season. It’s not too early to say he is the best all-around catcher in the sport, and this is likely the year that his name starts to be associated with a bevy of year-end awards.

James McCann is expected to back up the wunderkind. He was added in a December trade with the Mets that saw the Queens club retain $19 million of the $24 million the veteran is owed between this season and next. McCann was poor in a Mets uniform, posting a .610 OPS the last two years. But his defensive profile remains well-regarded, and he should still be an overall improvement over the departed Robinson Chirinos.

Both Rutschman and McCann could also factor into the first base picture as well. That remains Ryan Mountcastle’s job most days, but the Orioles have made an effort this spring to try out different options behind him. The 26-year-old had impressive batted ball data last season, but he continued to strike out too much (25.3%) and walk too little (7.1%). Plus, his impact was hampered by the new dimensions at Camden Yards, contributing to a dip in home runs (33 to 22) and slugging percentage (.487 to .423). Other backup options at the position appear to be Anthony Santander, Terrin Vavra, or any one of the left-handed non-roster invitees that could stick around the organization beyond spring.

Speaking of Vavra, his hold on a roster position seems tenuous. He showed decent on-base skills (.340 OBP) in his 40-game cameo last year, and he’s been good this spring (.364/.408/.591) while playing four different positions. However, the competition at his preferred second base is stiff, and the battle for playing time will only intensify as the season goes on.

Adam Frazier is probably the starter at second base to begin the season. The Orioles gave him a one-year, $8-million deal this winter coming off of a poor showing with the Mariners (80 OPS+). But he was an all-star in 2021, is considered a steady defender, and there is reason to buy a bounce-back for the veteran moving from Seattle to Baltimore, two stadiums that treat left-handed hitters quite differently.

The only thing we know for sure on the left side of the infield is that Gunnar Henderson will be playing everyday. The 21-year-old is the favorite to win Rookie of the Year, and it’s for good reason. He tore up Double-A, Triple-A, and MLB pitching last season. In his one-month stay with the Orioles to wrap up 2022, Henderson posted a 123 OPS+ and exit velocities that would be good for anyone, let alone a guy that started the year in Bowie.

While Henderson figures to settle into either shortstop or third base long term, all indications are that he will bounce back and forth in 2023. The Orioles have given him nearly equal time at both positions this spring, and his ability to play both at an acceptable level gives Brandon Hyde the flexibility to mix-and-match elsewhere on the infield.

All of this could mean that one of Jorge Mateo and Ramón Urías are sitting the bench rather often this season. Both of them had incredible seasons in the field in 2022. Mateo, by most metrics, was the American League’s top defensive shortstop and won a Fielding Bible award as a result. Urías was the AL’s top glove at the hot corner, nabbing him a Gold Glove in the process.

The problem for both of them is offense. Mateo got on base at a .267 clip and struck out 27.6% of the time. His saving grace is his elite speed, which helped him snag an AL-best 35 stolen bases. It would just be nice if he could use it more often. Urías, by comparison, was a stud at the plate, and it’s true that he’s no slouch (.720 OPS, 104 OPS+ in ‘22). He just happens to excel at a position with lofty offensive expectations that he doesn’t quite meet.

More of a utility role could be in the cards for both of them. Mateo has spent some time in center field this spring, a return to what he did for the Padres back in 2021. Urías has worked out at second base some, where he played 147 innings last season.

One thing is certain, and that is the infield will not remain stagnant. Apart from all the big league options already in place, there figures to be at least a few significant promotions from Norfolk at some point.

Jordan Westburg is still in major league camp as of this writing. He has an .896 OPS this spring and should be an early call-up if he doesn’t make the team outright. Joey Ortiz is already on the 40-man roster and said to be a slick fielder, although his playing time was limited this spring. Connor Norby has only nine games of Triple-A under his belt, but he led the organization with 29 homers last year.

It’s going to take some time for the Orioles to figure out their ideal infield set up, just as it did a season ago. But there is no doubt that it’s a talented group with seemingly endless options. The ultimate puzzle for Hyde and GM Mike Elias to solve if this team is going to meet their potential.