Who's the right free-agent fit for O's at SS?

November 12th, 2019

As Mike Elias enters his first full offseason at the head of the Orioles’ baseball operations, the club will continue to prioritize the long-term view for the rebuild the GM has championed from the start. Making his first public comments this winter on 105.7 The Fan’s “Hot Stove” show last week, Elias all but confirmed Baltimore won’t be a player at the top of the free-agent market, saying the focus would be on gauging the trade market and making decisions on its seven arbitration-eligible players.

But that doesn’t mean the Orioles don’t have a winter checklist.

Aside from multipronged, behind-the-scenes hiring efforts, the O's are also looking to bolster their roster depth in two specific areas this offseason: pitching and middle-infield depth. Elias specifically mentioned that he plans to target a veteran shortstop, and the reason why is plain to see.

After a season in which 100 percent of their shortstop starts came from either or , the Orioles must prepare to open 2020 without either in the fold. That’s still more of a possibility than a certainty at this point, depending on what the O's do with Villar at the non-tender deadline and whether they feel Martin would benefit from beginning the year at Triple-A Norfolk. Last February, the Orioles went out and made a similar play to ink veteran shortstop Alcidies Escobar on a Minor League deal, before cutting him in camp. Whoever they target this winter is more likely to remain in the fold.

So, who might that be? Who represents the best fit? Here is a look at what shortstop-types might be on the radar to land in Baltimore next year:

Age (by Opening Day 2020): 30
2019 salary: $2.5 million
Fit: Good
A former All-Star but somehow never a Gold Glove winner, Iglesias probably represents the top of the market as far as the Orioles are concerned. That’s assuming they won’t be in the mix for Didi Gregorius, who is likely looking for a multiyear deal after not receiving a qualifying offer from the Yankees. Iglesias can still pick it with the best of them; he compiled a 1.6 WAR with Cincinnati last year despite posting an 85 OPS+.

But the O's may face a hurdle in the odd configuration of this winter’s middle-infield market -- it’s rather deep on versatile infielders, but shallow on full-time shortstops, specifically. Iglesias is one of just four who fit that mold, and well north of that many clubs -- including the Yankees, Phillies and other contenders -- figure to be on the search for veteran depth.

Age: 30
2019 salary: $1 million
Fit: Good
Still known for his defensive acumen roughly a decade into his big league career, the Cuban-born Hechavarria probably profiles as the best free-agent fit for the Orioles given his skill set and relatively low cost. Hechavarria is a career .253 hitter with .642 OPS over eight seasons with the Marlins, Rays and five other teams. He appeared in 84 big league games last season for the Mets and Braves, enjoying a productive 24-game offensive run for Atlanta down the stretch. But if Hechavarria is targeted, it’ll be for his glove -- with which he remains more than serviceable.

Age: 33
2019 salary: $5.25 million
Fit: Fair
The Tigers were in a similar spot last offseason when they jumped into the market to grab Mercer, who had spent the past seven seasons in Pittsburgh. Mercer was limited to 74 games due to leg injuries in his lone year in Detroit, hitting .270 with nine homers and a .747 OPS and rating as a replacement-level player overall. That likely means Mercer’s market won’t be robust, which could allow the Orioles to target him on a low-risk, short-term deal. The question would be whether Mercer fits the team’s mold of a “glove-first” option at short, where he has rated average or below defensively three of the past four seasons.

Age: 29
2019 salary: $2.5 million
Fit: Decent
A useful and versatile piece for the Brewers the past four seasons, Perez profiles more as a utility man than a full-time shortstop option. But he has made 41 appearances at the position since 2018 and is a free agent after rejecting an outright assignment to Triple-A last month. Perez, who is arbitration-eligible for the third time this winter, slashed .228/.262/.379 in 232 big league at-bats in 2019, while seeing time at seven positions.

Age: 30
2019 salary: $12 million
Fit: Imperfect
Castro isn’t the hit machine he once was, but he has been a durable, roughly league average offensive player over the past two seasons for the Marlins, who acquired him from the Yankees in the Giancarlo Stanton trade. Castro became a free agent when the Marlins paid his $1 million buyout rather than pick up his $16 million team option.

Castro began his career with the Cubs and has a connection to O’s manager Brandon Hyde, who coached him in Chicago. But he figures to have at least a few suitors this offseason, and his fit in Baltimore is imperfect. Castro has made only six appearances at shortstop since 2015, playing predominantly second base over the past four seasons.