Now that the World Series has concluded, the Orioles are immediately faced with their first major roster decision of the offseason. And it is a big one.
The club must decide by Sunday whether to exercise the $3.5 million team option on José Iglesias, or buy the veteran shortstop out for $500,000. Iglesias represents the only looming option decision for the Orioles, and it is a decision that -- on paper and in normal times -- appears clear-cut from a baseball standpoint. But context looms large in 2020.
With that as a backdrop, let’s look at the case both for and against the O’s bringing Iglesias back to be their shortstop in 2021.
The case for:
In signing Iglesias to a one-year, $3 million deal with a club option last winter, the Orioles sought a veteran glove-first presence to shore up their middle-infield defense. What they got was a version of Iglesias that had never existed previously. Simply excellent with the bat, he hit .373 with three homers, 17 doubles and a .956 OPS in 39 games.
The 30-year-old contended for the American League batting title and set career highs in important stats like on-base percentage (.400), slugging (.556), isolated slugging (.183), wOBA (.407) and wRC+ (160), all by wide margins. He also rated positive defensively and garnered consistent praise from management for his leadership abilities in a young clubhouse.
In short, Iglesias ended up being Baltimore’s best all-around player at a premium price. Should he produce even a fraction of what he did in 2020, he would profile as a trade candidate who could yield prospects at next summer’s Deadline. That’s vital for a rebuilding team like the O’s.
Also helping Iglesias’ case is the fact that there is no clear replacement at shortstop, though that did not stop the Orioles from parting ways with the more productive (and expensive) Jonathan Villar last offseason. That move eventually led executive vice president/GM Mike Elias to target Iglesias in free agency and slot in Hanser Alberto for everyday duties at second base.
This winter, Alberto is a non-tender candidate as a second-year arbitration-eligible player, with No. 25 prospect Rylan Bannon a candidate to assume second and third base reps in 2021. The Orioles’ highest-level shortstop prospect, No. 13 Terrin Vavra, is yet to play past Double-A Bowie. The club is also expecting Richie Martin back healthy after the former Rule 5 Draft pick missed all of ‘20 with a broken right wrist. But he profiles more as a utility option at this point.
The case against:
There are two concerns from a baseball standpoint: Iglesias’ track record and durability. He is an obvious regression candidate offensively, having massively outperformed his career slash line .278/.319/.381 (88 OPS+) in 2020’s 60-game season.
Squeezing that sample further was the fact that Iglesias was limited to 39 games, and just 22 starts at shortstop, due to various injuries. He was hampered by back stiffness in Summer Camp, played through left quadriceps soreness from the start of the season on, and also suffered wrist and ankle bruises along the way. Should Iglesias catch the injury bug again or slump back to his career norms next year, it would hinder both his production and any potential trade value.
That said, the biggest implications here are likely financial, with teams cutting staff and facing business uncertainty across baseball due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Orioles remain deep in a long-term rebuilding cycle, had baseball’s lowest adjusted payroll in 2020 at $24 million according to Cot’s Contracts and have just $36 million in guaranteed money earmarked (all for Chris Davis and Alex Cobb) for ‘21 heading into arbitration season this winter. They also recently laid off and furloughed nearly 50 staff members, according to multiple reports.
This was an organization not expected to spend heavily this winter before COVID-19; now, the purse strings are likely to be wound even tighter. Whether Iglesias is brought back or not could go a long way toward dictating just how tightly.