Baltimore Orioles: Assessing The Current Middle Infield Situation

BALTIMORE, MD - MAY 22: Richie Martin #1 of the Baltimore Orioles forces out Gary Sanchez #24 of the New York Yankees to start a double play in the first inning at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on May 22, 2019 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, MD - MAY 22: Richie Martin #1 of the Baltimore Orioles forces out Gary Sanchez #24 of the New York Yankees to start a double play in the first inning at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on May 22, 2019 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images) /

The Baltimore Orioles will have to replace Jonathan Villar this offseason. What options do they have already in the system?

It’s been almost 48 hours and despite a full day of family, terrible football, and enough food to have us regretting yesterday’s decisions, news of the Baltimore Orioles placing Jonathan Villar on waivers is still a hard pill to swallow.

Sure, spending the $10 million likely required to bring back for Villar for one more season on other assets is better in the long run, that’s understandable. The Orioles are going to finish in last place and probably lose 100+ games for a third-straight season and one player in Villar isn’t going to change that.

As fans, we still have the right to be frustrated over watching a player who hit 24 home runs, swiped 40 bases, and finished 2019 with a strong second-half performance and the highest Wins Above Replacement Value of anyone on the Baltimore Orioles roster. Despite the impressive numbers and career-year at the plate, 29 other teams have yet to bring an acceptable offer to the table for Villar’s services.

As a result, Villar now finds himself on waivers, where any team willing to pick up his possible arbitration salary is free to claim him. In today’s game where prospects are more valued than ever before, if the cost for Villar is just cash instead of prospects, the odds may be higher that someone puts in a claim.

If no one puts in a claim by Monday afternoon, the Orioles will have a few hours to negotiate a new contract ahead of the 8 pm deadline to tender arbitration eligible players contracts. If Villar accepts a new contract, he’s back for the 2020 season. If not, he’s a free agent.

The path to keeping Villar on the roster is a long one, so it’s probably best to start looking at the roster without Villar. The Orioles are still in the market for a glove-first middle infielder. We have dicussed a few possible options here, and also highlighted two veterans who recently entered the free agent market in Matt Duffy and Yolmer Sanchez. But until a free agent is signed or a trade happens, who can the Orioles turn to?

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Rio Ruiz has earned the right to see what he can do as the full-time third baseman. Honestly, there’s no one else in the system ready to take his place right now, but that still doesn’t take away from the improvements he made at the plate and his fine defense in the hot corner.

The advanced defensive metrics show Hanser Alberto‘s play at second base as the best among any Orioles player at any position in 2019. Take them for what they are worth, but it’s something. That leaves us with figuring out who plays shortstop?

All signs point to Richie Martin beginning the year in the minor leagues next season, now that he’s satisfied his Rule 5 roster requirement.  While he finished the season with a wRC+ of 50 and the defensive metrics did not like him at all (-8 Defensive Runs Saved, -4.2 Ultimate Zone Rating), Martin improved his batting average by 118 points, his on-base percentage by 95 points, and his wRC+ by 57 points from the first half to the second half of the season.

The Orioles claimed Pat Valaika off waivers from Colorado right after the season, but he’s split the last two seasons between the majors and Triple-A and has posted a .wRC+ of 9 and 34 in each of the last two years. Seeing as 100 is league-average, Valaika likely won’t bring much if he makes the roster out of spring training.

Mason McCoy is the one shortstop who is closest to making the big leagues after spending most of last season with Double-A Bowie. After hitting .379 with a .416 OBP in High-A Frederick, McCoy slashed .266/.326/.343 with seven triples and 10 stolen bases. He doesn’t bring any power to the plate (nine home runs in 1,213 at-bats), but he’s been a proven hitter since his college days, showed an ability to use all parts of the field last year, and brings major-league ready defense.

Unfortunately, the Orioles 24th-ranked prospect profiles more as a utility player than an everyday shortstop.

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Former Oregon State standout Cadyn Grenier (21st-ranked prospect) ended his season in High-A ball, but had to pack things up early with an injury and hit just .208 in 24 games. His glove is impressive, very impressive, and his combined .355 OBP last season was promising, but he’s a career .236 hitter through his first 149 games. Grenier will have to prove himself in the upper-minors before we can talk about him contributing in the big leagues.

The top options are 14th-ranked prospect Adam Hall and 7th-ranked prospect Gunnar Henderson. Hall is just 20, while Henderson is 18. Both are many years away from the big leagues and profile to be better fitted at other positions (Hall at second base and Henderson at third base), but scouting reports are high on both players and confident they can develop into everyday major league players.

There’s some promise down in the lower minors, but the help won’t come until the Baltimore Orioles look more like a team ready to start thinking about contending. Until then, it looks more and more as if we will have to get used to a rotating door of middle infielders. The days of stability at shortstop and second base are no more in Baltimore, at least for a few more years.

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Stay tuned over the coming days as the Baltimore Orioles must also make a decisions as whether or not they tender contracts to the other six players set for arbitration this winter. The deadline is set for December 2nd.