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Antonelli’s Big Deal

Teams roll the dice on former top prospects all the time, but it’s not often you see one get a guaranteed Major League contract. That’s exactly what the Orioles officially gave infielder Matt Antonelli this week. The former first round pick of the Padres will compete for a job in Spring Training after passing his physical on Monday.

Antonelli spent this past season in the Nationals’ organization, posting a .377 wOBA in 359 Triple-A plate appearances after having surgery for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. He missed all but one game of the 2010 season thanks to left wrist surgery (hamate), and his 2009 campaign consisted of just 59 games due to various sprains (ankle) and strains (thigh). It’s been a bumpy few years for Antonelli, who Baseball America considered the 50th best prospect in the game prior to the 2008 season.

You can understand why the Orioles would add a guy like this. Antonelli’s always shown very strong walk rates in the minors, including 13.1% this year and 13.9% for his career. He also does a nice job of putting the bat on the ball, striking out just 16.4% of the time in 2011 and 15.1% of the time in his minor league career. A .163 ISO (.142 career) is a decent number as well, particularly for a guy capable of playing the middle infield. Antonelli was drafted as a third baseman but shifted to second by San Diego, and he spent the 2011 season bouncing between the three non-first base infield spots as well as left field. The problem in recent years has been injuries, not performance.

The Major League contract is a little odd, just because you don’t normally see players with three straight years of injury trouble and zero big league track record land such deals. For what it’s worth, Antonelli did say on his blog that a dozen or so teams had been in contact with him earlier this month, so perhaps it’s the guaranteed 40-man roster spot that put Baltimore over the top. The O’s are woefully thin on the infield thanks to Brian Roberts‘ continued injury problems, with Ryan Adams and Robert Andino projected to start at second and third, so they did add some much needed depth.

Dan Duquette’s first real move at the helm of the Orioles was a little interesting, not because of the player but because of the contract terms. That’s not to say it was a bad move, just a curious one. Antonelli is exactly the kind of player a non-contender should take a flier on, a middle infielder with a knack for working the count and putting the ball in play. It doesn’t take much for a guy with that skill set to be worth two wins, but Antonelli’s got a lot to prove first. The O’s clearly think he’s worth the risk given the investment they’ve already made in him.