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Orioles infield present and future carry no shortage of potential

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Three-fourths of the Orioles’ projected Opening Day infield didn’t travel to Bradenton, but there was no shortage of talent starting against Pittsburgh in Tuesday’s Grapefruit League game. 

In fact, if someone looked into a crystal ball and told you Gunnar Henderson would be starting at third base, Jordan Westburg would be playing second base, and Joey Ortiz would be manning shortstop in the midst of an AL wild-card push six months from now, those who follow the organization closely probably wouldn’t be shocked. That’s not as much a slight against veteran second baseman Adam Frazier, slick-fielding shortstop Jorge Mateo, or 2022 Gold Glove third baseman Ramon Urias as it is a compliment to the infield talent knocking on the door in Baltimore’s farm system. That’s not even counting 2022 first overall pick Jackson Holliday, Connor Norby, and Coby Mayo, who also rank among the Orioles’ top 10 prospects entering 2023

Not everyone will pan out, of course, but it’s quite the good problem to have. 

Of course, Henderson enters 2023 as the consensus top prospect in baseball and is the early AL Rookie of the Year favorite after a successful call-up last season that included 12 extra-base hits and a .788 on-base plus slugging percentage in 132 plate appearances. In his spring debut on Tuesday, the 21-year-old made a couple Gold Glove-caliber plays at third base — he’ll also continue playing some shortstop — and singled, showing off the potential that has so many fans salivating. It’s been a long time since the Orioles had a pair of homegrown talents like Henderson and star catcher Adley Rutschman, who was Baseball America’s No. 1 overall prospect at this time a year ago. 

While Henderson’s Opening Day spot is all but officially a lock, Westburg and Ortiz appear destined to return to Triple-A Norfolk for the start of 2023 despite both having success at that level last season. That was especially true of the 24-year-old Westburg, who clubbed 46 extra-base hits and posted an impressive .869 OPS in 413 plate appearances for the Tides last season. The 2020 first-round pick out of Mississippi State did all he could to earn a major league promotion last season and will be difficult to keep in the minors much longer, a notion he reinforced Tuesday with two hits that each had an exit velocity over 100 mph. 

Westburg’s 2022 success is why it was surprising to see the Orioles sign the 31-year-old Frazier to a one-year, $8 million contract in December. He posted a career-low .612 OPS in Seattle last season and had hard-hit metrics that don’t inspire confidence for a big rebound either, but general manager Mike Elias wanted a left-handed contact bat in the infield. Frazier also plays good defense at second base, a factor that was a topic of discussion last year as many wondered why manager Brandon Hyde continued playing veteran Rougned Odor. 

Considering the financial commitment made, the Orioles intend to play Frazier at second base regularly and even at the corner outfield spots on occasion, but Westburg continuing to rake in the International League could force the issue sooner than later. While the Orioles hope to see a Frazier more closely resembling the All-Star selection for the Pirates in the first half of 2021, his performance hasn’t been trending in a great direction since he was dealt to San Diego at the trade deadline that season, and his 2020 campaign wasn’t particularly good either.

The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Westburg — a consensus top 100 prospect in baseball — has been on the major league radar for a couple years now, but 2022 was a breakout season for the 24-year-old Ortiz. A 2019 fourth-round pick out of New Mexico State who was always regarded as an outstanding defensive shortstop, Ortiz saw his power take off with a combined 60 extra-base hits between Norfolk and Double-A Bowie. The bulk of his 2022 playing time came with the Baysox, but the 5-foot-10, 190-pound Ortiz was even better at the plate with the Tides, batting .346 with 13 extra-base hits and a .967 OPS in 115 plate appearances to close out the season. 

On Tuesday, Ortiz — who made several top 100 prospect lists this winter — looked as smooth as advertised at shortstop, smacked a ball that was run down in deep center field, and drew a walk. 

Ortiz’s play and Henderson’s ability to move over to shortstop are big reasons why Mateo, 27, can’t assume anything despite a breakout 2022 of his own after years of struggling to live up to being a top prospect elsewhere. Though winning a Fielding Bible Award at shortstop, leading the AL with 35 stolen bases, clubbing 13 home runs, and finishing an impressive 3.4 wins above replacement last season, Mateo posted an ugly .267 on-base percentage in 533 plate appearances. No matter how impressive his other tools are, it’s tough to envision him keeping the starting job for the long haul if he can’t get on base more consistently.

The infield picture remains even more crowded with the 28-year-old Urias, who’s only posted an above-average .750 OPS over three seasons with the Orioles while playing strong defense. And there’s also the 25-year-old Terrin Vavra, who will compete for a utility job after posting a .340 OBP in 103 plate appearances in the majors last year. 

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No matter how the infield shakes out in the near future, there will also be the development of Holliday, who’s already a consensus top 20 prospect in baseball. Though the 19-year-old struck out looking in his only at-bat on Tuesday, he’s already turned heads in his first spring camp. The organization won’t rush such a young talent, but it’s hardly out of the question for Holliday to be in the majors at some point as early as next year if he ends up dominating the minors.

Yes, this Orioles infield is going to be fun to watch — both in 2023 and beyond.

The veteran infielders may not have made the short trip from Sarasota to Bradenton on Tuesday, but they certainly don’t have the luxury of getting too comfortable. Everyone can see what’s on the way. 

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