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Ryan Flaherty, the 2014 Orioles' perfectly adequate utility infielder

In 2014, Ryan Flaherty once again served as the Orioles' utility infielder, and he put up good enough numbers to secure that role for himself for another year.

Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

In baseball, it can be tough to tell how good a team's bench is, and it's even more difficult if you follow an American League team. At least in the National League, you've got an obvious pinch-hit and double-switch opportunity or two nearly every game, so it's easy to glance at your reserves and see whether or not there's someone to fill that role. But in the AL, outside of a pure platoon - a pretty rare situation these days, as much as we O's fans may pine for the days of Roenicke and Lowenstein - we fans tend to divide players into two overgeneralized categories: the starting nine and the rest. (The latter, when we're feeling nice, are the backups in case of injury; when we aren't, they're the scrubs and scrap heap pick-ups.)

Things really aren't that simple, though. Take Ryan Flaherty, who's served mainly as the Orioles' utility infielder for the last two seasons. He's a below-average hitter (career wRC+ of 78, 79 in '14), and the jury's still out on his defense, at least at shortstop, but he played in 102 games for Baltimore this season and got about half a year's worth of plate appearances (312) and defensive innings (736).

Flaherty was, indeed, largely an injury fill-in, as much of his playing time came as a result of J.J. Hardy's early- and late-season back troubles and Manny Machado's two knee injuries. But he also got a fair amount of at-bats at second base when Buck Showalter wanted to sit Jonathan Schoop against a particular pitcher, giving Flaherty about 100 plate appearances each as a second baseman, third baseman, and shortstop.

The Flahrt was once again platooned heavily, though not quite as much as last year, probably out of necessity. Only 49 (16%) of his 2014 plate appearances were against lefties, but even that is twice as many as Showalter felt comfortable exposing him to in 2013 (25 PA against southpaws, 9%). Unsurprisingly, his hitting closely resembled last year's, with very similar splits versus pitcher handedness. Flaherty's overall wRC+ dropped from 84 in '13 to 79 in '14. That drop seems entirely attributable to the extra time versus lefties and a decrease in power, as his ISO declined from .167 to .135. To put that in perspective, Matt Wieters has a career ISO of .166, while Nick Markakis has a .129 since 2009.

On defense, Flaherty's story was similar: a drop-off from last season, either slight or severe, depending on which metric you like. As I wrote last year, the advanced metrics graded his glovework at second base as being analogous to Hardy's at shortstop: well above average for a fielder at that position. That's quite high praise, but Flaherty's additional time at shortstop this year (204.1 innings in '14 vs. 33 in '13) exposed some of his defensive weaknesses; both metrics had poor play at shortstop (-2.1 UZR, -5 DRS) roughly canceling out solid work at second and third (combined +1.4 UZR, +7 DRS).

In all, Flaherty was worth 0.6 to 1.1 WAR in 2014, which isn't bad for a half-season for a bench player. It's hard to say what his value to the team will be in 2015, because so much of it depends on his defensive ability, and how accurately those metrics are evaluating him. If he can turn himself into an adequate defensive shortstop - and it's worth noting that he's hardly had a chance to get used to playing there in the majors - then he'll be a very valuable utility infielder, able to fill in for Hardy and Machado as needed and occasionally platoon with Schoop. If Buck isn't comfortable with Flahrt as backup SS for 2015, though, then he's still a useful piece, but one that creates a bit of a roster crunch.