They cheered all the Orioles starters down the orange carpet Friday, some more than others, of course.
Those others? Mainly the infielders — Adam Frazier, Ramón Urías and Jorge Mateo — who aren’t part of the team’s blossoming young major league core and aren’t the intriguing infield prospects waiting at Norfolk.
But through one week of the season, those players are showing they might not be so easily replaced after all.
Frazier, the team’s big-ticket free agent in the lineup, opened the scoring in a 7-6 win over the Yankees with a run-scoring single and reached twice. Urías, who continues to push potential superstar Gunnar Henderson to the designated hitter spot, had a pair of key doubles and made a game-saving play in a tense eighth inning. Mateo had another multi-hit game out of the No. 9 spot, and added another stolen base to his count.
Mateo and Urías are known quantities whose hot streaks last year helped propel the Orioles to their first winning season since 2016. Frazier is still introducing himself to an Orioles fanbase that broadly viewed his addition as curious, maybe even unnecessary. He and the rest of the infielders populating the bottom of the lineup know the best way to combat that is to simply produce, and to this point they have.
“You want to impress them and do some good things, but it’s a long season,” Frazier said. “You embrace it, and hopefully, they appreciate it.”
Frazier, whose one-year, $8 million contract represents the largest the Orioles have given to a position player in free agency during general manager Mike Elias’ tenure, comes to the ballpark with both the comfort that if he wasn’t truly wanted in Baltimore, “they wouldn’t have offered me a bunch of money and brought me in.”
They want his defense at second base; believe hits like his ground ball through the right side to open the Orioles’ scoring will be frequent given MLB’s new shift ban; and like his potential to help the maturation process in their talented but inexperienced clubhouse.
“I know my role here,” Frazier said. “They need me to fill multiple spots and help these young guys grow up. That’s why I’m here, and I’m going to play good baseball in the meantime.”
A week into the season, Frazier’s on-field contributions have been encouraging. He and Mateo are joint leaders on the team with an identical 1.035 OPS. His last few seasons, both in Pittsburgh and then Seattle, have featured some stronger offensive seasons and some weaker ones. The aggregate of his career production, as measured by weighted runs created plus (wRC+) where league-average is 100, is 99.
Frazier has outperformed his expected stats so far this season, though there’s reason to believe he can also outperform what he’s done in his past in the Orioles’ progressive hitting program. Their program featuring challenging pitch mixes in batting practice that replicates games and the way they breakdown and present information are new to him, but he appreciates “the attention to detail there on that side of the game” and how flexible the coaches are in letting a hitter dictate what he does on a given day based on how he and his swing feel.
“Some days you feel good with your swing and you want some little things, and then you go from there,” Frazier said. “Some days you feel a little lost and they bring you things to try to get you back to it. It’s proactive stuff.”
To be proactive as an Orioles infielder right now is to actually be defensive, in many senses of the word. Their collective prowess on the dirt will help keep the team in games, and maintaining the high standard they set last season is a starting point for any successful Orioles season. But it’s also, in reality, defending one’s job.
Any time one of Frazier, Urías or Mateo is out of the lineup, Henderson slots into the infield, with Terrin Vavra and his disciplined approach also in the mix. Every day that passes is also another day that Jordan Westburg, the Orioles’ No. 6 prospect according to Baseball America, finishes his development at Norfolk and nears a debut. Fellow top-10 prospects Joey Ortiz and Connor Norby will require a little longer with the Tides, but they’re looming as well.
It’s a reality of this Orioles season that players like them are preparing to bolster their playoff chase, and it falls on the players already here to start the season well enough to ensure there is a playoff chase for them to bolster.
The Orioles don’t view Frazier as a placeholder — no one making $8 million in the big leagues qualifies as such, and besides, the lean rebuilding years gave us plenty of examples of what they look like. They can’t do what Frazier does, nor Mateo or Urías. And their production so far has helped ensure the Orioles’ winning start to the season.
A week-plus of Orioles baseball has been enough to lock in the notion that this team is going to need to score a lot to win games, at least until the bullpen steadies itself. They can’t do that counting on just their stars at the top of the lineup, and they can’t necessarily do that adding inexperienced players to their lineup at this stage, no matter how talented the players on the horizon are.
“Every time that the bottom guys are able to contribute to the team, that makes us even better,” Urías said.