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Offseason Forecast: Infield

Jorge Mateo home run chain
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Offseason Outlook series:

Starting Pitchers

Bullpen

Hello everyone, and welcome back to the Offseason Outlook series. The hot stove is starting to warm up. Today we are going over the Orioles infield, a group that has caused a lot of discourse in this fanbase going foward.

Before we do discuss potential improvements, let’s review the infield from 2022.

The 2022 Orioles infield was a tale of two sides. Defensively, they were close to elite at nearly every position. Obviously, Adley Rustchman will be a defensive wizard going forward, but the others deserve praise as well.

Outside of Rougned Odor at second base, the Orioles’ infield ranked highly defensively. Ryan Mountcastle put in his best defensive season at first base. Jorge Mateo was amazing, despite not even being a finalist for the Gold Glove, finishing in the 97th percentile in Outs Above Average with a 7.5 Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR). This stat considers everything about being a fielder and puts every player on an equal playing field. Add in 14 Defensive runs saved (DRS) and what you have is one of the league’s best defensive shortstops.

Looking over next to Mateo, Ramon Urias had the pleasure of taking home some hardware. He won the 2022 Gold Glove, and deserved it.

Add in Gunnar Henderson, who was also positive defensively at Short and Third, and this infield is speaking for itself, right? No improvements have to be made, right? We can just trot on into the 2023 season without a care in the world, right?

Here is the issue: notice how I didn’t say anything about how good offensively these guys were? Well, that’s because they weren’t.

Urias certainly had his moments, but his overall stat line of .248/.305/.414, with a .719 OPS, leaves a lot to be desired. His biggest problem was his consistency. He would go on tears but also slump badly at points. This is because Urias can’t stop hitting balls into the ground. When he elevated, he would usually get good results. Unfortunately those spans happened between weeks, sometimes months, of slumps. He isn’t awful by any means, and with his defense, a team can function with Urias. Can they excel though?

Mateo’s offense was even worse. He wasn’t a good offensive player, finishing in the bottom 15th percentile in nearly all offensive categories. Mateo’s 2.3 WAR is nice, but all came from his base running and defense. He was a negative value on offense, according to Fangraphs. He had -5.2 offensive value, while he had 14.5 value on defense. For the non-stat nerds, that means that Mateo’s value is all from the things he does without a bat in his hand.

Mateo and Urias are an odd case study for the front office. We are all very interested to see which way Mike Elias & Co. go.

Another wrinkle in this discussion is Gunnar Henderson. Gunnar needs a position he can play every day. Playing second was cute last year, but he needs to either stick at third while moving to short occasionally, or vice versa.

Another wrinkle is this free agent shortstop market. Remember how I said in the starting pitcher outlook that the market was robust and allowed the Orioles to sign a quality player without spending big money? Yeah, that doesn’t apply to this market. The market has four big names: Carlos Correa, Trea Turner, Xander Bogaerts, and Dansby Swanson. Outside of these stars, there isn’t any option that would validate upgrading from Mateo at Short.

We are in a buyers’ market right now in the MLB Offseason. There will be no bargain bin hunting for quality in this free agent market; you either pay the stars or trust your guys. There is no in-between here, which puts the Orioles in a weird spot.

We should want the team to spend money, but is it wise to spend $20 million-plus on a shortstop when you already have one who put up a 2 WAR season and multiple young pieces in-house?

This is the debate within the fanbase right now. All the big four shortstops would be huge upgrades offensively, but some of them lack the defense that Mateo brings.

The trade market is also not looking all that good regarding infielders either. The Orioles could sign Adam Frazier, but is that really what this team needs? Baltimore desperately needs an infielder who can also drive in runs. The truth of the matter is that Urias and Mateo simply don’t do that.

So what should they do? I think they should really consider these big four shortstops. They all have their faults and won’t be cheap, but come on, man, you have so much money to spend. I get that Elias isn’t going to blow up the payroll, but thinking this team can’t sign one of these shortstops is silly. So what if they have an over $20 million dollar hit on the payroll?

Another point I have seen is that our prospects would be blocked by any new Orioles big name shortstop. My reaction to this information is a simple: “huh?”

Let’s look at the facts real quick.

The prospects I see when this conversation comes up are Joey Ortiz, Jordan Westburg, and Jackson Holliday. People need to keep expectations in check with these prospects coming up and immediately having the same sort of impact that a huge name would bring. It just isn’t realistic. Ortiz has the glove, but his offense is inconsistent. He had the most Jekyll and Hyde year I have ever seen from a prospect. He was awful in the first half, then looked like Babe Ruth in the second half. Is that holding you back from signing someone? I like Ortiz and think he can be a good major leaguer, but he isn’t the type of prospect Gunnar or Adley was. \n
As for Westburg, his primary tool is his versatility to play good defense anywhere on the infield. Westburg’s bat, however, was also inconsistent last year. He would go on stretches where he would look like a star, and then he would just look lost sometimes. He also strikes out a decent amount and is a prospect, so expecting him to step up big-time for the 2023 Orioles might not be in the team’s best interest. And Holliday…why is it even being mentioned in the conversation? He is eighteen years old and is still at least two to three years away from making an actual big-league impact, if we are lucky.

No, I don’t care about the 2026 Orioles; I care about making the 2023 Orioles the best they can be.

The reality of the situation is that betting on prospects, especially ones that can’t even buy a drink yet and have actual flaws in their games and aren’t slam dunk prospects like Adley, Gray Rod, and Gunnar, to make a big impact on a competitive team is bad business. Again I like these prospects, but I think the expectations for these guys are blown out of proportion.

There are better solutions to fill out the team and put the best quad on the field possible. Trades are also a factor here; they can package Ortiz or Westburg in a trade for an ace pitcher or other position.

So let’s go over this again. I think how the Orioles should handle the Infield should go like this.

  1. Sign a backup catcher for Adley. A real backup Catcher, like Curt Casali, who can at least offer some defense when Adley needs a break.
  2. Go hunting for the big fish and be aggressive. Any of the big four would be fine here, but my preference would be Correa or Turner. If those markets are getting out of control, though – I mean over $30 Million – look at Xander and Dansby. Doomsday scenario, overspend a little to get either of them.
  3. Trade Ramon Urias for a pitcher. They need to open up a spot for Gunnar, and third seems like his spot moving forward. If  Urias isn’t enough, add something like a low-top-30 guy.
  4. If the price for that pitcher is too high and he is an actual ace, add Joey Ortiz to the deal. Yes, I like Ortiz but not enough to hold him back from getting some like Shane Bieber.
  5. Make Jorge Mateo your bench piece. Play into his strengths as a defender and a base runner, and make him that versatile piece where he isn’t playing every day. You don’t have to trade him, but give him a new role instead.
  6. See what the second base market looks like. See what veteran is on the trade market if those free agents are not worth it. If said veteran isn’t available for a good price, let Terrin Vavra have the second base job out of Spring or let Jordan Westburg or Connor Norby fight for it with him.

Now is this realistic? I don’t know. We can have opinions, but we’ll see what Elias has in his plan. Remember, prospects are just that, prospects. They don’t always work out and can break your heart when they don’t, so betting on them, especially when they aren’t as slam dunk as you think, can lead to nothing but heartbreak. I understand people want to see these guys succeed, and so do I, but I also want a great Orioles team in 2023. The Orioles need a middle-of-the-order type of bat that drive in runs, and Ortiz and Westburg don’t project as that.

I am not hating on these prospects; I am being realistic and think we, as a fan base, need to temper our expectations.

If a good player is available at a point of need, you do everything possible to get him; that is what “liftoff” means, not betting on guys to work and being afraid to trade prospects.

Thank you for reading, and come back next week when we look at the outfielders and the DHs.

Mike Elias on his laptop.
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