Will it be starter, utility role or the farm for Richie Martin?

When the Orioles signed José Iglesias to be their starting shortstop, it was easy to make the assumption that now the club would send Richie Martin to Triple-A to start the 2020 season.

For one, Martin has never played at that level - jumping from Double-A to the majors last year as a Rule 5 pick. He could use the everyday batting reps. Even though his offense improved last year, it was still a challenge for him at the big league level. And Martin can start every day at Triple-A, while for the big club they have Hanser Alberto and Rio Ruiz to flank Iglesias at second and third base.

But as Lee Corso might say, “Not so fast, my friend.”

Martin-Richie-Throws-Gray-at-Twins-Sidebar.jpgWe still could see Martin on the Orioles’ opening day roster when they host the New York Yankees on March 26 at Camden Yards.

That word came from executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias during a conference call with media on Tuesday to announce the Iglesias signing.

“As it stands today, he’s got a great shot at making the team,” Elias said of Martin. “There is a 26th roster spot. It’s got to be a position player. We don’t have an obvious infield utility player that can play some shortstop right now other than Richie, so it puts him in a good spot to compete for playing time on the club.

“That said, we plucked him straight from Double-A. He’s never played in Triple-A before. We were unable to put him in Triple-A last year so we could keep him in the organization per the Rule 5 requirements. Now we will have the ability to use his minor league option and send him to Triple-A if and when needed, so I think all that’s on the table. But I can’t wait to see what he looks like in spring training, and he absolutely has a good chance of breaking with the club if that’s how things fall.”

In 120 games and 309 plate appearances last season, Martin hit .208/.260/.322 with a .581 OPS. But after batting .166 in the first half, Martin hit .284/.321/.392 with a .713 OPS in 51 games in the second half. He hit .379 in September.

Martin’s 89 starts at shortstop were the third-most by a rookie in Orioles history, behind Cal Ripken Jr. with 91 in 1982 and Ron Hansen with 149 in 1960.

It was nice to see his second-half progress, and the Orioles could choose to keep him with the big club come late March and see if that continues starting opening day.

While Martin showed a strong arm and some range at short, defensive metrics didn’t see it the same way. Among American League shortstops with 300 or more plate appearances in 2019, he ranked 17th among 21 players in FanGraphs.com’s defensive ranking, while Jonathan Villar was 13th. In Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) he rated 17th and Villar was 11th.

Martin could get some starts at second base and play alongside and learn from Iglesias, but the team has to decide if he’s better served playing every day at Triple-A if he is not going to do that for the Orioles right now. He could be a utility infielder and be a late-inning replacement for Alberto at second base.

But for a team that might lose 100 or more again, the needs of the young player and his personal development likely supersede those of the team. Getting everyday reps on the farm to start surely can’t hurt. An injury could open a spot for him at some point and/or he could show enough progress with Norfolk to earn a promotion.

Injuries, potential future signings and how the players look in spring all will have something to say about the O’s opening day roster. But if Martin is not a regular to begin the year for the club, getting those starts on the farm for now still seems to be the best play.

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