Second base was a problem for the 2022 Orioles. The vibes radiating off of Rougned Odor were immaculate all season, but no amount of veteran leadership could make up for his 79 OPS+ and -0.4 bWAR. Change was needed.
The expectation from the fanbase was that Odor’s immediate successor would come from within the organization. Jordan Westburg and Joey Ortiz both seemed like worthy options right in Triple-A, or maybe Terrin Vavra would get an extended trial to prove himself.
Instead, O’s GM Mike Elias turned to free agency, signing Adam Frazier to a one-year deal. It was a move that didn’t excite many. Those that closely follow the team largely had a one-word response: “Why?”
Some pessimism was fair. Frazier was more than a year removed from the last time he looked like an everyday big league bat, and he had just put up a 79 OPS+ in ‘22 with the Mariners. In some ways, it felt like a re-run of the Odor signing, but with the added frustration that accompanied an otherwise quiet offseason for the O’s. And with a farm system full of infield options it made even less sense.
But with more than a month of the 2023 season now in the rearview, the early returns at second base have been positive for the Orioles.
So far, the team’s second basemen rank ninth in MLB with 0.8 fWAR, seventh with a .341 OBP, and 11th with a 102 wRC+. Far from elite, the group is at least solid, a dramatic turnaround from a season ago, when the Orioles second basemen were arguably the worst position group in the sport.
Frazier is the driving force. He owns a .259/.348/.410 slash line when playing the position, and has just one more strikeout (12) than walk (11). He is among the league’s best at avoiding whiffs and strikeouts, emblematic of the team’s recent transformation that has allowed them to crowd the bases night in and night out.
On the defensive side of things, advanced metrics do not love Frazier’s work. But he rarely makes an error, and has formed a steady double play duo with Jorge Mateo. The Orioles lead the league with 32 groundball double plays turned.
Ramón Urías has also contributed to the team’s improvement at the position overall. The Gold Glover has gone from being the everyday third baseman for the majority of 2022 back to a utility role that often gets him starts at second base against left-handed pitching. His offensive numbers at the position aren’t great (.456 OPS), but he does provide a boost on defense.
The signing of Frazier indicated that the team wasn’t quite ready to make Westburg, Ortiz, or any of the prospects into everyday big leaguers. But if the veteran flopped, that was going to be a hard argument to make, especially in the context of the team’s hot start.
Instead, he’s been competent, good even! That allows the Orioles front office to stick to the plan, and force their youngsters to go above and beyond in order to make their way to Baltimore.
Based on their Triple-A numbers, it might be working. Ortiz owns a .337/.367/.528 slash line with the Tides this season while Westburg has been even better at .333/.395/.593. Ortiz got a big league taste during the road trip in Detroit a couple of weeks ago, while Westburg is still waiting.
But before you say “See? Frazier is blocking the young guys” let’s think about it a bit more critically.
Ortiz has 48 total games at Triple-A between last year and this year. Gunnar Henderson spent 65 games with the Tides before he got the call, and that’s when he was taking the game by storm last summer. It’s not ridiculous to ask for a little more seasoning before handing over a big league role.
Westburg is more experienced. He played most of 2022 in Norfolk, and has another month there already this year. But he has also seen his walk rate dip (from 10.7% to 8.4%) and strikeout rate jump (from 21.8% to 24.4%) this season. And his position is unclear. The Tides have played him at five different spots on the field, including both corner outfield spots. That doesn’t exactly sound like the treatment of a bonafide major league middle infielder. Not to mention, he isn’t on the 40-man roster yet.
It’s a similar story for Connor Norby. He doesn’t need to be added to the 40-man roster until December, 2024 so he seems to be a ways down the pecking order as of this writing. But it’s unclear if he will even be a second baseman by then. The reviews of his work on defense aren’t exactly glowing, and the Orioles have also given him some time in the outfield this year.
Frazier probably isn’t going to be the Orioles second baseman in 2024. Heck, he may not even be their second baseman by the time September rolls around. But he is filling the role admirably so far, and at the very least he has bought the organization some time to figure things out. That may not be the most exciting accomplishment, but it’s exactly what this version of the Orioles needed early in the season.