Baltimore Orioles: An Unfamiliar Situation At Shortstop
By Nick Stevens
A lot of questions remain surrounding the shortstop position for the Baltimore Orioles, an unfamiliar situation for fans.
Who will be the starting shortstop for the Baltimore Orioles on Opening Day? That’s a pretty difficult question to answer, at the moment. Two Rule 5 draft picks and an 11-year MLB veteran with a career on-base percentage well under .300 are the current top options, with a few utility players sprinkled in, to make spring training a bit more interesting.
This is new territory for fans of the Orioles, who really haven’t had to worry about who will man the shortstop position.
Since the Baltimore Orioles took the field for the first time in 1954, at least 20 different players have started Opening Day at each position on the field, except for one position. In 65 seasons of Orioles’ baseball, only 17 men have had the honor of having their name inserted as the starting shortstop in an Opening Day lineup. I think we all know who the longest-tenured Oriole on this list is.
Cal Ripken Jr. worked 14 Opening Days at shortstop (1983-1996, six additional starts at third base), Mark Belanger made 13, and Mike Bordick logged six, as did J.J. Hardy, who has started six of the past eight seasons.
The Orioles have not only had stability, but they have seen fairly decent production from the position. Looking at the past 10 seasons, Baltimore shortstops rank 14th in baseball in total fWAR (26.1) and grade out defensively as the third-best unit in baseball over this same time span.
The only positional unit to surpass a 26.1 fWAR in the past decade was the centerfield position, lead by Adam Jones, which posted a 26.5 fWAR. While 26.1 fWAR is good enough to rank in the upper half of the league of shortstops, Orioles’ centerfielders come in at 24th in the league.
Unless J.J. Hardy makes a miraculous return, the Orioles will add a new name to the list of Opening Day shortstops in 2019, likely between Alcides Escobar, Richie Martin, or the long-shot, Drew Jackson.
Have any of the shortstop options stepped up for the Baltimore Orioles?
Among the three candidates, Richie Martin has been the most effective at the plate. In 19 plate appearances, Martin is hitting .412 with two doubles, two stolen bases, and two walks (with just two strikeouts).
Much of the discussion surrounding Martin has centered around his corrected vision and offensive burst last season in Double-A with the Oakland Athletics organization. After failing to hit above .235 in any season with at least 300 plate appearances, Martin hit .300 with a .368 OBP in 509 plate appearances. He has continued to see the ball well in spring, while playing solid defense.
Manager Brandon Hyde has praised the versatility and veteran presence of Alcides Escobar and beat writers seemed to anoint him the opening day shortstop as soon as the news of his signing was released. Martin is doing a lot of things right, thus far, and has shined in all aspects of his game. The top overall pick of the Rule 5 draft just might turn out to be a valuable offseason addition.
When it comes to Escobar, I just don’t see it. He was included in our piece predicting the Orioles 25-man roster, but only because I believe Mike Elias brought in Escobar for more than just camp competition and Elias is a lot brighter than I am.
Watching one of Escobar’s recent starts at the shortstop position, he still has the range and glove of an above-average defender, but his arm left a lot to be desired. His throws were off target and didn’t look to have a lot of zip behind them. Maybe it was just a veteran taking it easy during an early spring training game, maybe it wasn’t.
Either way, if we as fans are going to be subjected to another 100-loss season, we should be able to sit through it while watching Richie Martin take his lumps, not a 32-year-old hitter with a lifetime on-base percentage of .293.
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Also competing at the position is Rule 5 pick Drew Jackson. Jackson has been used more in a utility role in the infield and outfield while doing his job well. Very early on in spring, Jackson caught my attention with his strong arm and ability to quickly turn a double play. He’s continued to flash the leather and produce above expectations at the plate.
Through 10 games, Jackson is hitting .375 with a .421 OBP and .859 OPS. Those numbers are nothing close to what he will likely put up across a full season in the majors, but he can make a positive contribution with his glove, at numerous different positions. For that reason, keeping both Rule 5 picks on the roster isn’t an outrageous idea.
There’s no JJ Hardy returning to the lineup and last year’s Opening Day shortstop, Manny Machado, is back in the hot corner with the San Diego Padres. A normally steady and productive position for the Baltimore Orioles now has a handful of questions that may not be answered in 2019, but only lead to more questions.
What are your thoughts on the shortstop position? Are you a fan of Richie Martin? Think Alcides Escobar will do, for now? Let us know.