BALTIMORE -- Shortly after trading Jonathan Villar to the Marlins on Monday night, Orioles general manager and executive vice president Mike Elias was asked what his potential shopping list for next week’s Winter Meetings might look like. Before outlining his desire for back-end rotation help and catching depth, Elias described an obvious and suddenly more pressing need: replacing Villar, whose departure now leaves a gaping hole in the Orioles’ middle-infield picture.
“We don’t have a lot of upper-level Minor Leaguers that are necessarily beating down the door to the big leagues right now,” Elias said. “In terms of middle of the field [players], those are areas we might have to explore other avenues for.”
Translation: The Orioles will likely look outside the organization for solutions, given the uncertainty surrounding Richie Martin and their lack of options behind Hanser Alberto (Pat Vailaika and Stevie Wilkerson currently constitute the roster’s only depth).
Nine full-time middle infielders were non-tendered Monday, bloating the lower tier of a free-agent class that already included Jose Iglesias, Jordy Mercer, Adeiny Hechavarria and others. Whether it is on a Major or Minor League deal, the Orioles are likely to target at least one player from this crop before they open Spring Training in Sarasota in February.
With that as a backdrop, let’s look at some of those possibilities:
Non-tendered by: Cubs
Opening Day 2020 Age: 26
2019 salary: $3.4 million
While Elias has shown that he’s not afraid to make unpopular moves, this may be a litmus test for how much he is willing to stomach from a PR standpoint. There would surely be backlash from signing Russell, who recently served a 40-game domestic violence suspension, especially as a replacement for a well-regarded player like Villar. But in terms of surplus on-field value, there may not be a better fit (not to mention Russell’s ties to O’s skipper Brandon Hyde).
Once the Cubs’ shortstop of the future, Russell’s production has dipped from his All-Star campaign in 2016 -- he was roughly a replacement-level player in 2019, hitting .237 with a .699 OPS in 82 games. But he’ll still be just 26 and likely looking for a starting job on a short-term deal. The Orioles can offer that, as well as the hitter-friendly confines of Camden Yards, and then presumably flip Russell for value if he performs.
Non-tendered by: Reds
Opening Day 2020 Age: 25
2019 salary: $2.8 million
The roster casualty of Cincinnati reportedly signing Mike Moustakas, Peraza was a precocious prospect when the Reds acquired him in 2015 as part of their three-team trade of Todd Frazier. And while he’s flashed elite bat-to-ball skills, speed and defensive acumen at times in the big leagues, Peraza ultimately struggled over 3 1/2 seasons as a regular in the Reds’ infield mix. He hit 14 homers and stole 23 bases in 2018, but he cratered offensively last season, hitting .239 with six homers and a .631 OPS.
Peraza’s versatility -- he started 13 games in left field and 22 at short along with 50 at second base last year -- and three years of club control probably mean he’ll have little trouble finding a big league job somewhere. The Orioles, though, may prefer more of a glove-first option.
Non-tendered by: Phillies
Opening Day 2020 Age: 29
2019 salary: $7.8 million
A mainstay in the Phillies infield since 2015, Hernandez is a switch-hitting, high on-base type with speed but a lackluster defensive reputation. Despite a second consecutive down year in 2019, he’s probably still in line for a multi-year deal somewhere -- which would likely put him out of Baltimore’s reach.
Non-tendered by: White Sox
Opening Day 2020 Age: 27
2019 salary: $4.6 million
The reigning AL Gold Glove winner at second base, Sánchez might be the best fit for a Baltimore team looking for young, controllable infielders who can pick it. Sánchez is two years younger than Villar and would likely come at more than half the price -- he was projected to earn $6.2 million in arbitration per MLB Trade Rumors before Chicago placed him on waivers last week. Sánchez became a free agent when he went unclaimed, signaling that the rest of the league didn’t value him at that price either.
Sánchez has never been more than a league-average offensive player, and he hit .252 with just two homers and a .638 OPS in 149 games last season. But he’d be an upgrade in the field for an Orioles team that ranked as the AL’s worst defensively in 2019.
Non-tendered by: Braves
2019 salary: $1.4 million
Culberson isn’t young or someone the Orioles would likely be able to flip for value, but he has something they desire -- versatility. He played five different positions for the Braves last season, and seven in his career (if you include three innings on the mound), appearing everywhere except catcher and center field. He’s also under club control through 2021 and hit .270 with 12 homers and a .792 OPS as recently as 2018.
That kind of production would be useful for the Orioles, as it would be for a lot of clubs. A former Dodger and Brave, Culberson has been a complementary piece on playoff teams each of the past four seasons. Maybe he’s a stopgap in Baltimore until Mason McCoy or Rylan Bannon are ready, or if the Orioles need an emergency outfielder. But there is also an argument for Culberson providing more value to a team on the other end of the competitive spectrum.