SARASOTA, Fla. -- One of the Orioles' more intriguing roster decisions came to a head on Wednesday, when the club granted Alcides Escobar his outright release rather than guarantee the veteran shortstop a roster spot. Escobar, 32, had a Wednesday deadline to exercise the opt-out in his Minor League contract, and is now free to explore opportunities with other clubs.
Escobar would’ve made $700,000 had he made the Orioles’ Opening Day roster. He wasn’t available for comment.
“We felt like we have a lot of infield depth here and it just wasn’t going to fit,” Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said. “Ideally you’d like to have some veteran leadership, but in our situation we’re trying to accumulate as much talent as we can to the system.”
As an 11-year veteran, Escobar would’ve offered the Orioles experience that can’t be found anywhere else on their roster. Instead they’ll soldier on with a deep crop of infielders, as Hyde referenced, but also a sizeable amount of uncertainty. Of their several potential shortstops still in the fold, only Jonathan Villar boasts more than a handful of Major League games at the position, and he’s pegged to be the club’s starting second baseman.
The move all but clears the way for Richie Martin and Drew Jackson to break camp with the club, with Martin likely handling everyday shortstop duties to start. That has been the Orioles' preference since snatching both up in December’s Rule 5 Draft, though both would’ve had to be offered back to their former clubs (the A’s and Dodgers) had they struggled enough for the Orioles to head north without them.
Escobar was signed largely for insurance in case that happened, or if either youngster struggled as rookies at the Major League level. That’s still entirely possible. Martin and Jackson have impressed this spring, but neither has played past Double-A. Behind them, Baltimore’s shortstop depth consists of Hanser Alberto (22 Major League games at shortstop), Jace Peterson (7), Jack Reinheimer (4) and Steve Wilkerson (1).
Wilkerson has already been optioned to Minor League camp, while Reinheimer and Peterson would both require a 40-man roster spot, as Escobar would have. The former American League Championship Series Most Valuable Player and World Series champion with Kansas City, Escobar has averaged 151 games at shortstop per season since 2011. He hit .219 without a homer and 7 RBIs across 13 games in Grapefruit League play, sprinkling in appearances at third base as well.
Martin entered play Wednesday hitting .270/341/.405 with three doubles, no homers and four RBIs across 14 spring games; Jackson was hitting .333/.370/.429 through 21 games. Both have impressed Orioles officials with their athleticism and defense, Martin at shortstop and Jackson with his ability to move all around the field.
“I think rookies break through all the time,” Hyde said. “We feel Richie and [Jackson] have high upside. We want to continue giving them opportunities.”
The Orioles will face a similar situation later this week with catcher Jesus Sucre, whose own opt-out comes with a Friday deadline. Sucre is in the running for the club’s backup catcher job.
Hot corner competition heating up
On the roster bubble for much of camp, Rio Ruiz appears to be making a run at the club’s third-base job after starting there again in Wednesday night's 6-4 loss to the Red Sox in place of Renato Nunez, who missed his second straight game with biceps soreness.
Claimed off waivers in general manager Mike Elias’ first player transaction in December, Ruiz arrived in Florida as Nunez’s main challenger and has largely outplayed him, hitting .275 with a .875 OPS while holding his own defensively. Nunez, in turn, has hit .226 and made four errors in 12 games.
Being out of Minor League options may be an advantage for Nunez, whom the Orioles would risk losing through waivers should he not make the club.
Those concerns could go away if Nunez must begin the season on the injured list. The 24-year-old hit .275 with a .781 OPS in 60 games for Baltimore last season.
“We’d like to see him play a little more, to be honest with you,” Hyde said. “He swung the bat well when he was here last year, that definitely plays a huge factor in the decision making. But I’d love to see him play a little more before we break.”
Big night for Bundy
The challenge of facing a lineup full of Red Sox regulars resulted in the best outing this spring for Dylan Bundy, who completed 5 1/3 strong innings in his penultimate tuneup for the regular season. Bundy struck out three and didn’t walk a batter while throwing 68 pitches, then tossed a dozen more in the bullpen to stretch out further. Bundy will start again on either the final or second-to-last day of Grapefruit League play before likely taking the ball during the Orioles' opening series in New York against the Yankees next weekend.
“I’m trying to work on the changeup and curveball more to give hitters more looks,” Bundy said. “Overall, all the pitches tonight I thought I was executing a lot better. Just executing where I wanted the ball more.”
Could Dwight Smith Jr. be making a late-spring roster push? Acquired from Toronto for international bonus pool money on March 8, Smith clocked his second homer in as many games by taking Health Hembree out to center, and is now 6-for-14 with two homers since arriving in Sarasota. Besides the Orioles' three projected starters, Smith profiles as the only full-time outfielder left in camp that bringing north wouldn’t require clearing a 40-man roster spot.
The Orioles head to Bradenton, Fla., on Thursday to play the Pirates for the final time this spring, lining up behind rotation hopeful David Hess. Hess is a favorite to claim the club's No. 4 starter job, but muddied that candidacy a bit by allowing nine runs last time out. Chris Archer opposes for Pittsburgh, with first pitch set for 1:05 p.m. ET from LECOM Park.