Defense doesn’t deserve diminished attention in offseason

Many of the Orioles’ 2021 statistics won’t be shocking when plucked from the team’s season summary, but finishing with the third-highest fielding percentage in the American League at .987 and the sixth-highest in the majors is an unexpected nugget.

Upgrading the defense must remain a priority, as it’s been in past winters.

The Orioles claimed former Gold Glove winner Yolmer Sánchez off waivers Oct. 30 to play second base, but he didn’t make it out of camp and they decided to experiment with Rio Ruiz, who didn’t make it through the summer.

Sánchez avoided arbitration by agreeing to a $1 million deal, his salary based on whether he made the opening day roster, but he went 8-for-39 (.205) with a .484 OPS in exhibition games and had some issues in the field.

Maikel Franco made most of the starts at third base with 97 and he registered a minus-0.5 dWAR and .967 fielding percentage per Baseball-Reference.com. Extremely inconsistent on the corner and basically immobile when the Orioles released him.

The Orioles used six third basemen and seven second basemen. Pat Valaika made most of the starts at second with 58 and didn’t commit an error, but he posted a collective dWAR of minus-0.6.

Ryan Mountcastle became the primary first baseman with 82 starts, edging out Trey Mancini (76). He also made 18 starts in left field, none after June, and had a collective minus-1.5 dWAR.

Thumbnail image for Urias-Catch-White-Sidebar.jpgRamón Urías (0.5) and Kelvin Gutiérrez (0.3), the latter in a much smaller sample size, provide upgrades. The athleticism in the middle improved with Richie Martin and Jorge Mateo, though the former matched his 2019 dWAR of minus-0.5.

Catcher Pedro Severino had a career-best 0.6 dWAR, but also was charged with 10 passed balls and was behind the plate for 66 wild pitches. He threw out nine of 40 runners attempting to steal. His work wasn’t lauded, to say the least, but Adley Rutschman is waiting in the wings.

The outfield was in good hands with Cedric Mullins and Austin Hays, but Anthony Santander, a Gold Glove finalist in right field in 2020, saw his dWAR drop from 0.7 to minus-0.6. Ryan McKenna was a valuable extra at every position.

The outfielders recorded 23 assists, tied for the seventh-most in the American League and 10th-most in the majors. Hays led the Orioles with nine assists. Mullins’ 11 Outs Above Average per Statcast were tied for the fourth-most by a center fielder in the majors.

The Orioles committed 74 errors, the sixth-lowest total in the majors, but their “defensive runs saved above average” was minus-22, eighth-worst in the majors. They also were in the minus range in other advanced metrics. So, a deeper dive shows the room for improvement.

The failure to turn double plays became the norm. Routine ground balls produced only force outs. An absolute killer for a pitching staff that needed all the help it could get.

Urías seems to have locked up a job, whether starting in the middle or serving in a utility role. Mateo’s plus speed and arm intrigue and earn him a long look in camp. But executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias is going to check the market for an affordable middle infielder.

Nothing from the expensive shortstop bin.

Gutiérrez led Orioles infielders with five Outs Above Average, but does he bring the type of power desired from a third baseman? Might not be enough slug to satisfy.

Upgrading the pitching is the No. 1 priority again, but the infield is right behind it. The Orioles don’t have a position set beyond first base. They don’t have a shortstop prospect from an impressive inventory who’s ready to break camp with them.

Sounds a lot like the 2020 offseason.

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