Unlike some of the other positions on the infield – most notably first base and third base – the Orioles have a bit more depth behind their all-star caliber starter at short. J.J. Hardy brings superb defense and a power bat as the O’s starting shortstop. Behind him – thanks in no small part to the middle infield depth collected this offseason – the Birds do have a few intriguing options should the need arise for additional help. Ryan Flaherty, Alexi Casilla, Ivan DeJesus Jr., and Alex Gonzalez all have the potential to be competent fill-ins at the position. There is also the looming elephant in the room of Manny Machado, who could end up as the O’s everyday shortstop in 2015 if Hardy is lost to free agency.
Major League Starter
J.J. Hardy (B: R, T: R; Age: 31)
The post-Cal Ripken Jr. (or more accurately, the post-Mike Bordick) years saw the Orioles struggle to find a consistent starting shortstop. That is until Andy MacPhail traded spare bullpen arms by the names of Jim Hoey and Brett Jacobson to Minnesota for J.J. Hardy during the 2011/2012 offseason. The Twins – who acquired Hardy from the Brewers the prior year – never really “got” Hardy as they undervalued his defense and attempted to turn him into an average hitter that sprays the ball all over the field. The Twins loss was the Orioles’ gain.
Since joining the O’s in 2011, Hardy has hit for power (77 homeruns and 84 doubles over three seasons) and displayed above average defense that has earned him back-to-back Gold Glove awards (in addition to other defensive accolades). Hardy does not get on base a ton (.298 OBP while with the Orioles) and the average slipped to rather low levels during the 2012 season, but otherwise he has provided a consistent power-hitting and defensive presence in the O’s lineup. At 31, there are few reasons not to expect a relatively similar season from J.J. in 2014.
The big question surrounding Hardy is whether the organization can work out an extension to keep him in Baltimore past 2014 or whether they will part ways potentially allowing Manny Machado to slide over to his “natural” position.
Major League Backup
Alex Gonzalez (B: R, T: R; Age: 37)
I spent most of the winter championing the idea that Ryan Flaherty – the starting second baseman – should also be the primary backup shortstop. I thought (and still do think) that it there is logic to be found in that arrangement. Flaherty could slide from second to short when need be with Jemile Weeks backing up at second base. It would remove the need to carry a player like Alexi Casilla whose primarily role and skillset is that of a defensive-minded backup middle infielder. Weeks, I figure, adds more value through his walk rate and speed that Casilla does.
With Opening Day now almost within view, I am changing my tone a bit. It wasn’t necessarily that I thought having your starting 2B back up your starting SS was something Buck would do, I just hoped it was something he might do. After getting re-accustomed to how Buck likes to set his roster, it is obvious that the manager will prefer to carry a bench player capable of playing shortstop. In addition, with Manny likely to start the season on the DL, Flaherty will probably scoot over to third base with Weeks starting at second. That opens the room for another MIF to make the roster opening day and at this point, it is probably Gonzalez.
The veteran shortstop – and he has almost exclusively been used a shortstop as a pro – has some pop in his bat. He holds a career .150 ISO and carries the reputation as a plus defender. While some believe Gonzalez has a chance to be the regular third baseman in Machado’s absence, he has barely played the position in the Majors so that seems unlikely (although I am sure he will spend some time at the hot corner). He seems positioned for more of a backup role and perhaps will shift Flaherty to the bench versus tough left-handers. If he performs well in Machado’s absence, there is a chance he could stick with the club longer term as a backup SS/2B.
Alexi Casilla (B: B, T: R; Age: 29)
Poor Alexi. It seems like every spring there is a player who comes down with a nagging injury and is held out of action for a significant amount of time, perhaps longer than what seems necessary. The team takes a cautious approach early on with injuries. The reality also is that for a bubble player like Casilla – here on a minor league deal – there is no need from the team’s perspective to rush him back when they don’t necessarily need him back. Such was the fate of Casilla this March.
Casilla is back from his injury problems, though he claims he could have played earlier. His absence likely cost him a backup job to Alex Gonzalez. Casilla will begin the year in AAA playing short for the Tides unless something dramatic happens over the next week and a half.
I forget sometimes that Casilla is only 29. He still has plenty of value on any team and will make a fine option for Buck to go to sometime during the season if the opportunity is there.
Ivan DeJesus Jr. (B: R, T: R; Age: 26)
Like Casilla, De Jesus provides a very nice option for the Orioles at AAA. I talked about him in the second base write up so I won’t repeat that here. He wasn’t given much of a look during camp but did what he also does which is reach base (.357 OBP) without much power at all. DeJesus has never translated his strong minor league performance to the Majors and might not get the chance this season given his placement on the depth chart. Guys who were afterthoughts at the end of camp can on occasion popup in important roles later in the season, which is what De Jesus will be attempting to do.