Orioles pass over top prospects to sign veteran utility man

The Orioles signed Tony Kemp instead of using a number of in-house choices

Seattle Mariners v Oakland Athletics
Seattle Mariners v Oakland Athletics / Lachlan Cunningham/GettyImages

Spring training may be over, but the Baltimore Orioles are not done tinkering with their roster. On Tuesday, the Orioles signed veteran utility man Tony Kemp to a major league contract.

The Birds entered spring training with several questions about their infield. Will Gunnar Henderson play shortstop or third? Will Jordan Westburg play second base or third base? Can the Orioles find room for all of their star prospects? But arguably the biggest question of all was:Will Jackson Holliday break camp with the team?

As spring training came to a close, we got answers to all of those questions and more, including learning that Holliday would start the season with the Triple-A Norfolk Tides. Fans and analysts alike took to social media in shock, as Holliday seemed to flourish this spring. He slashed .311/.354/.600 with half of his hits going for extra bases (three doubles, two triples, two home runs), and stole two bases in two attempts. Defensively, Holliday looked the part as well, fielding all 38 chances he had without making an error, and ultimately recording 27 assists and 11 putouts.

As surprising as the news was, reigning executive of the year Mike Elias had all the right things to say in his explanation of why the decision was made. Elias explained that Holliday is still very young, changing positions and has limited experience at the higher levels, among other considerations. As much sense as Elias’ response made, there are still people asking if the decision was made because of service time.

Holliday is the No. 1 prospect in baseball, and has performed very well at every level since being drafted. The Orioles made several offseason acquisitions, including Nick Maton and Kolten Wong, to build competition for the second base position, but they did not work out. It was announced this week that the O’s released Wong from his contract and Maton, who was DFA’d to clear a spot on the 40-man roster for Kemp, went hitless in spring training.

Why did Orioles sign veteran infielder Tony Kemp?

Kemp comes to Baltimore with eight seasons of major league experience. He spent his first three seasons with the Houston Astros, split the 2019 campaign between the Astros and the Chicago Cubs, and toiled the last four seasons with the Oakland A’s. Kemp was released from Oakland following the 2023 season and signed with the Cincinnati Reds in February. He played in eight games with the Reds during spring training before being released in mid-March.

In Kemp’s big-league career, he has split time almost evenly between the outfield (primarily left field) and second base. He’s a contact hitter with very little power that can steal a base -- if he can get on base. He’s a career .238/.325/.352 hitter with a career 91 OPS+ and is coming off arguably his worst offensive season.

Kemp certainly has some intangibles he’s bringing to Baltimore, but nothing that Jorge Mateo doesn’t already bring. He’s a left-handed hitter, which the O’s love, but they already have four left-handed hitters in the everyday lineup. Gunnar Henderson and Cedric Mullins are natural lefties, while Anthony Santander and Adley Rutschman are switch hitters (plus Ryan O’Hearn in a platoon).

I wish Kemp the best and I hope he has a lot of success for the Birds, but they already have players to fill his positions. They have an excess of outfielders ready for the majors, both Westburg and Ramon Urías can play second base, and Mateo is the incumbent super utility player. If they Orioles want to add an infielder and don’t believe Holliday is ready, Connor Norby can finally be called up. He set a franchise record for hits in a single season with Norfolk last year, and has absolutely nothing left to prove at the minor league level.

The Orioles front office has been the best in baseball and they’ve built a championship-caliber team. Some of the recent decisions have been head scratchers, but there’s no denying that the Orioles are a great team and this will be a fun season. Let’s go O’s.