The O’s shuffled through a number of players at the hot corner and the keystone in 2021, with little success.
Today, Camden Chat kicks off its Orioles season in review series, profiling the players who logged meaningful playing time in 2021 and how they might contribute next season and beyond.
You know one aspect that looks promising? The outfield. Cedric Mullins had an incredible, MVP-caliber 2021. Austin Hays mashed the ball in September after shaking off his nagging injuries. Anthony Santander still has a potent bat if healthy, and breakout prospect Kyle Stowers is on the precipice of the bigs. Yes, looking ahead to 2022, the outfield sure looks good.
That’s great! And what about the infield?
Paul? What about the infield?
…Well, uh, the infield is certainly somethingsomething.
You didn’t answer me. You just trailed off.
Oh, sorry about that. Right. The infield. Well, Webster’s dictionary defines “infield” as…
OK, fine! The Orioles’ infield was a train wreck in 2021. And the immediate future doesn’t look much better.
Maybe that’s not totally fair. The Orioles’ infield was only half of a train wreck. Ryan Mountcastle and Trey Mancini provided steady to impressive production at first base. The Birds also had some success at shortstop, first with Freddy Galvis before his midseason injury and trade, then with an impressive rookie year from Ramon Urias, who will get his own CC profile later this week.
But second base and third base? It was ugly, folks.
No major league team got less production from second basemen than the Orioles, whose various stopgaps at the position combined to hit an atrocious .192 with a .527 OPS. The Orioles started seven different players at the keystone this year, three of whom were long gone from the organization by season’s end: converted third baseman Rio Ruiz (who batted .175 with a .606 OPS in his 19 games there), Stevie “Dr. Poo Poo” Wilkerson (.169/.421 in 21 games), and journeyman utility man Domingo Leyba (.091/.262 in 18 games).
It was, frankly, a foreseeable problem for the Orioles, who entered the season with no real plan at second base. In spring training, it was assumed the job would belong to former Gold Glover Yolmer Sanchez, whom the O’s claimed on waivers last October, but he was surprisingly cut just two days before Opening Day, setting off a revolving door that continued all season long.
The Birds’ default “regular” second baseman was Pat Valaika, who started a team-high 58 games, even though he spent large swaths of the season in the minor leagues. The upside-challenged Valaika isn’t anyone’s idea of an everyday player, and he was overexposed starting even one-third of the team’s games. Only a two-hit performance in the season’s final game kept Valaika’s batting average over the Mendoza line, at .201. He slugged .290 with a .250 OBP. He was a negative on defense, as well, posting -4 Defensive Runs Saved at second base.
It was a far cry from Valaika’s decent debut season with the Orioles in 2020, when he posted a 111 OPS+ in 52 games as a jack-of-all-trades type, convincing the O’s to tender him a contract in his first year of arbitration. He’s now arbitration-eligible again after making $875,000 in 2021, and is an obvious non-tender candidate.
If anyone on the current roster is the potential solution at second base, it’s Jorge Mateo, the 26-year-old speedster and once-ballyhooed Yankees prospect. Signed as an international amateur out of the Dominican Republic in 2012, Mateo ranked as high as the 18th-best prospect in baseball by MLB Pipeline in 2016 before his star began to fade. It wasn’t until he joined San Diego, his third organization, that he made his MLB debut, and the Orioles grabbed him with a waiver claim Aug. 5.
Mateo hadn’t been getting much playing time for a Padres team that fancied itself a contender, arriving in Baltimore with a mere .195/.235/.310 career batting line. But a rebuilding club like the Orioles had nothing to lose by giving Mateo an extended opportunity, and he finally started to live up to his potential.
We knew the guy could run — his sprint speed is tied for the fifth-fastest in baseball, per Statcast — and he showed off those wheels immediately with some aggressive baserunning and three stolen bases in his first six games as an Oriole. (Despite playing just 32 games, Mateo finished with the second-most steals on the team.)
But could he hit? Oh, yes, he could. Mateo ripped off a .353 average and .895 OPS in his first 19 games as an Oriole (of which all 19 were losses, because…Orioles). His .380 OBP in that span was almost entirely batting-average based, though. He drew only two walks while striking out 18 times. Mateo showed some defensive versatility, playing second base, shortstop, third base, left field, and right field for the Birds.
Sadly, Mateo’s first real shot in the majors was cut short by right lumbar inflammation that ended his season Sept. 12. He played 32 games in Baltimore, batting .280/.328/.421 with a pair of home runs and five steals. Assuming Mateo is back at full health next spring, he seems sure to be a part of the Orioles’ infield mix, perhaps getting regular starts at second. His tantalizing speed and offensive potential are worth a longer audition. He might not have the plate discipline to be an everyday player, but he’s got the tools to serve a useful role.
Meanwhile, the third base situation was a similar mess in 2021. Unlike at second base, the O’s actually had a plan in place for the hot corner. The primary starter was veteran Maikel Franco, signed to a one-year deal in mid-March, with the incumbent third baseman Ruiz on hand as a backup.
Both turned out to be disappointments. Ruiz was the first to go, getting waived in May, while Franco stuck around for months not because he was any good but because the O’s simply had no better options. Finally, after 104 mostly gruesome games, the Orioles pulled the plug on the Franco experiment at the end of August. He batted .210 with a .609 OPS and simply never looked comfortable.
Franco’s departure opened an opportunity for 27-year-old Kelvin Gutierrez, who started 33 of the Orioles’ final 38 games at third base. Gutierrez, a former Nationals amateur signing out of the Dominican, had spent parts of three seasons with the Royals after a 2018 trade before the O’s acquired him for cash this July.
Gutierrez was a clear defensive upgrade over Franco — and, from the eye test, he was the Birds’ best defensive third baseman since Manny Machado, making a litany of sparkling defensive plays, showing excellent hands and range. FanGraphs’ advanced defensive stats don’t agree, though; he rated a -1 DRS this year in his combined stints with the Royals and Orioles, and 0 DRS at third base in his MLB career so far. With such a small sample size, there’s room for some debate about the accuracy of those numbers.
What can’t be debated is that Gutierrez wasn’t up to snuff as a hitter. Though he took his share of walks, he didn’t hit the ball with much authority, evidenced by his .336 SLG and .663 OPS. Those stats, while better than Franco’s, don’t figure to make him a regular on the next contending Orioles team, even if his glove is as good as it appears. Still, Gutierrez isn’t arbitration-eligible until next winter and is the most big-league ready third baseman on the Orioles’ 40-man roster (at least while Rylan Bannon continues to struggle), so expect to see him back in 2022, perhaps getting the bulk of starts.
There is, happily, help on the horizon. Gunnar Henderson and Jordan Westburg, the Orioles’ #4 and #6 prospects, respectively, both enjoyed successful 2021 seasons in the minors, finishing the year at Double-A Bowie. Though both were drafted as shortstops, they’ve gotten ample experience at third base; Westburg started 36 games at the hot corner this year and Henderson 35. The duo could be the future of the Orioles on the left side of the infield, but their big league ETA likely isn’t until 2023, especially for the 20-year-old Henderson.
So for one more year, at least, the O’s infield is in a state of flux. Gutierrez and Mateo may figure prominently into the Birds’ 2022 infield; Valaika, not so much. Still, if all goes according to plan, next year might be the last time the Orioles have to worry about filling those positions with temporary stopgaps.