Pitchers and catchers reported to Baltimore Orioles Spring Training yesterday and the 2014 baseball season has officially begun. Today will be the pitchers and catchers first official workout, while several position players have already reported to camp, despite not being required to report till Tuesday. In part six of our Orioles Spring Training preview, we will take a look at the middle infielders that will be in camp and highlight some of the battles that will be taking place.
When it comes to the Orioles' middle infielders, there is one thing that is a certainty, JJ Hardy will be the starting shortstop as long as he is healthy and on the roster. Hardy has been one of, if not the best shortstop in the American League over the last three seasons and his always solid defense has begun to get recognized as he has won back-to-back Gold Gloves as well. Hardy is coming off of a good 2013 season, that produced a Silver Slugger award, an All Star Game selection and the aforementioned Gold Glove. He will continue to anchor down the middle of the field for the Birds.
After Hardy, not much else is a guarantee for this season. Although there will be a competition, the overwhelming feeling around the team is that the starting second base position is Ryan Flaherty's to lose. Brian Roberts departed this offseason via free agency, which opens the door for Flaherty to take over the everyday second base job. Flaherty showed last season that he can handle the position defensively very well, and although his overall numbers for 2013 of a .224 average with 10 homers and 27 RBI are not that impressive, he showed some improvement in the second half of the season as he hit .250 or higher in each of the final two months of the season. There is talk that if Manny Machado is not ready for Opening Day, that Flaherty may find himself playing at third until Machado returns, but barring a horrid Spring Training, Flaherty will be this team's starting second baseman.
There are a few guys who will do everything in their power to take the starting job from Flaherty, and the first of which is Jemile Weeks. Acquired in the deal that shipped Jim Johnson to the Oakland A's, Weeks once showed promise of being the next great second baseman in the game as he hit .303 with 26 doubles, 22 stolen bases and 36 RBI in 2011, but after a horrid season in 2012, he played most of the season in AAA in 2013 and will be looking to get back on track with Baltimore. Weeks does bring some speed to the lineup, which the Orioles do not have a lot of and has shown in the past that he can succeed at the Major League level. One thing that may hurt Weeks, is the fact that he does not bring any power with him to the plate and he still has Minor League options. We see Weeks competing with Alexi Casilla for the third middle infielder spot.
Speaking of Casilla, the veteran saw his option declined by the Orioles when the 2013 season ended, but wound up returning to the Birds on a Minor League deal with a Spring Training invite. Some feel that Casilla is a long shot to make the roster, but we feel a little differently, especially if Machado is not ready to go when the season starts. Unless Weeks has a great spring, we believe that Manager Buck Showalter would elect to go with a veteran guy, who he likes, as the third middle infielder and that guy is Casilla. Alexi can play second, short and third base in a pinch and offers some more versatility on the bench, especially with his ability to steal a base here and there. Casilla hit .214 in 112 at bats with 10 RBI last season for the Birds as the utility infielder.
The guy that many Orioles' fans want to be the starting second baseman is Baltimore's top ranked positional prospect Jonathan Schoop. He got a taste of the show late last season once the Birds were eliminated from playoff contention and hit a homer and picked up four hits in 14 at bats for the Orioles. Baltimore seems pretty set on having Schoop start the season in AAA to prove he is healthy and can show some consistency at the plate. As bad as some fans want to see Schoop come north with the ball club for Opening Day, they will have to wait a little while before being called back up to Camden Yards.
There will be some other middle infielders in camp, but none are considered to be a threat to make the Opening Day roster. Alex Gonzalez, Cord Phelps, and Ivan Dejesus Jr will all be in camp as Gonzalez and Dejesus Jr. signed Minor League deals this offseason with Spring Training invites, while the Orioles claimed Phelps off waivers in November and was later outrighted to AAA Norfolk. The switch hitting Phelps could be a guy we see in Baltimore at some point this season if he hits well at Norfolk as his .370 career on base percentage in 582 minor league games is very enticing for a lineup that struggles in that department.
Baltimore's Rule-5 selection Michael Almanzar, who is primarily a third baseman, may see some time at second base this Spring to see if he could play there in a pinch as Baltimore will likely try to find every way possible to keep him on the roster, or they must offer him back to the Boston Red Sox.
When you break it down, you honestly have four guys (Hardy, Flaherty, Casilla, and Weeks) competing for three spots with Hardy obviously having one of the spots locked up. The real competition will be between Casilla and Weeks, but Flaherty better not get too comfortable because a very poor swing could cause him to lose a job. In the end, a lot of this will come down to whether or not Machado is ready for Opening Day. If he is not, then it is possible that Flaherty, Weeks and Casilla could make the 25-man roster, but if Machado is ready, we believe Flaherty and Casilla will make the club.
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- Orioles101′s Baltimore Orioles Spring Training Preview Part Five: Catchers
- Orioles101′s Baltimore Orioles Spring Training Preview Part Four: Battle for Fifth Spot
- Orioles101′s Baltimore Orioles Spring Training Preview Part Two: Bullpen Newcomers
- Orioles101′s Baltimore Orioles Spring Training Preview Part One: Returning Relievers
- Orioles101′s Baltimore Orioles Spring Training Preview Part Three: Top 4 Starters
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