The Orioles’ shortstop history might repeat itself in 2023.
Jorge Mateo was the starter last year on opening day and in a total of 142 games. He’s arbitration-eligible for the first time and the Orioles tendered him a contract in November, with Jan. 13 the deadline to reach agreement or exchange salary figures.
Odds set this month would have Mateo as the favorite to play the position in the March 30 opener against the Red Sox at Fenway Park. First in a field that includes rookie Gunnar Henderson.
J.J. Hardy is the last Orioles shortstop to make consecutive starts on opening day going back to 2016-17. The club has been unsettled and in the market for stopgaps.
(Hardy also was the starter from 2011-14, but a strained left shoulder forced him on the disabled list to begin the 2015 season. Name his replacement. Answer below.)
Manny Machado moved from third base to shortstop in 2018 before the July trade to the Dodgers. Tim Beckham started at third, which might have escaped the memories of many Orioles fans.
Richie Martin was the starter in 2019 after the Orioles made him the first selection in the Rule 5 draft. They signed veterans José Iglesias on Jan. 7, 2020 and Freddy Galvis on Jan. 26, 2021.
Mateo, a waiver claim from the Padres on Aug. 5, 2021, received an opportunity that eluded him in three other organizations. He was a plus defender, winning a Fielding Bible Award but snubbed by voters for a Rawlings Gold Glove. He also led the American League with 35 stolen bases in 44 attempts and had 25 doubles, seven triples and 13 home runs, but he slashed .221/.267/.379 in 533 plate appearances.
The Orioles can choose to live with the line, believe that they can get more out of him – Mateo posted a .321 average and .944 OPS over 31 games from July 16-Aug. 23 – or seek an offensive upgrade from within the organization.
The options are plentiful with Ramón Urías, a Gold Glove winner at third, also capable of playing shortstop, and prospects Jordan Westburg and Joey Ortiz at Triple-A Norfolk.
Teams are inquiring about Mateo’s availability and he isn’t untouchable. So few are, of course. But the Orioles certainly could live with Henderson at third, Mateo at shortstop and a combination of Urías and Adam Frazier at second.
Westburg and Ortiz, also labeled as trade chips if the Orioles are willing to pull from their prospect bundle to land a starting pitcher, likely will return to Triple-A as long as they remain in the system. But they can report to spring training under the assumption that they have a chance to break camp with the team.
* Backup catcher James McCann will report to spring training next month and get acclimated to a new pitching staff, with reliever Mychal Givens an exception after they worked together last summer with the Mets.
Is there enough time in camp?
“Yes and no,” he said.
“With all the data we have now, I will be able to know guys’ strengths and weaknesses based off the data,” McCann said in a video call with the local media. “The part of spring training is going to be getting those in-game reps, when a guy misses with a pitch, what’s his miss? The data doesn’t necessarily show that as clearly as what a guy’s strengths and weaknesses are.
“The big thing for me in spring training other than seeing the pitches live and just forming the on-field relationship with pitchers is the off-the-field relationship. Just having conversations, getting to know a guy, getting to know about his family, getting to know where he grew up, where he’s from. Little things like that that I like to think as a catcher, that’s just as important as the on-field aspect, because when things are going tough or things are going really good, how do you treat a guy? Understanding what makes a pitcher tick is one of the most important jobs that a catcher has and being able to get the most out of him. So, I think knowing that background-type stuff is as important as anything.
“It’s a quick time, but there is time to get to know guys.”
McCann’s offense took a hit over his two seasons in New York, the latter filled with injuries. He also was the victim of some bad luck at the plate.
“That’s the hardest thing about this game,” he said. “Baseball’s a game of failure and whoever fails the least are the best players. You fail 70 percent of the time, you’re a Hall of Famer. There’s not many other jobs out there where if you fail 70 percent of the time, you’re actually going to keep your job, much less be the best at it. So, it’s frustrating. It was very frustrating going through it.
“I also know that at my position, the value that I bring on the defensive side is tremendous compared to what I can do offensively. You can go 4-for-4 and drive in runs, but if behind the plate you let in more than you drive in, your team’s going to lose. So, that’s something I take a lot of pride in is separating the offense from the defense and knowing that I can have a major impact on a game without ever doing anything offensively.
“Being able to balance that is something that helped me get through the year, through the frustrating times. I also know I’ve been through the downs before. I’ve experienced failure at this level and I’ve found a way to succeed after. I was non-tendered after 2018 and I was an All-Star in 2019, so I’ve been there, I’ve experienced failure. I do think that’s one of my strengths as a player is being able to communicate with other players that might be experiencing failure and being able to just kind of get them through those tough times, because at the end of the day, you’re going to have a lot more tough times than you do good times and that’s just the nature of the game.”
Answer: Ryan Flaherty was the starting shortstop on opening day 2015 against the Rays at Tropicana Field. He hit a solo home run off reliever Kirby Yates in the ninth inning in a 6-2 win.
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