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What do the Orioles have defensively in Stevie Wilkerson?

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Designated for assignment in March, Stevie Wilkerson has been anything but a liability in center field. The Orioles can’t know what Wilkerson will be yet, but one thing is certain; they have a plus-athlete to continue to mold.

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Baltimore Orioles Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

After a 1-5 weekend road trip that saw the Orioles succumb to a -20 run differential, the frustration is easy to understand. Understanding, however, that the overall lack of success is as designed as it was expected is crucial to reaching the 162-game finish line.

Losing sucks, and losing spectacularly sucks. Last night? That loss fell under the category of “spectacularly.” With all manners of losing coming with more regularity, making the Orioles a part of your daily routine has naturally become a challenge. Just remember, these next couple of years are not about the sum of the parts, but the parts of the sum. One of those parts is Stevie Wilkerson, and there may not be a more interesting Oriole right now than the former Clemson Tiger.

Admittedly, Wilkerson looked entirely outclassed in his initial 49 plate appearances a season ago, but everyone not named Manny Machado was too, so who cares? The now-27-year-old only posted a 25 wRC+ over his first 16 games, though as we saw, he made a handful of defensive plays that helped to showcase how athletic a guy he is. Coincidentally, that same athleticism, and a current 103 wRC+, has propelled him into a position to contribute as an everyday regular.

The Baltimore Sun’s Jon Meoli recently wrote about Wilkerson and how the Orioles were forced to get creative in center field after Cedric Mullins fumbled his own opportunity to play six or seven times a week at the big league level. General manager Mike Elias and manager Brandon Hyde felt that Wilkerson, though inexperienced as an outfielder, was capable of manning one of the more demanding positions on the field. At first glance, it makes sense.

Of course, being a good athlete is more than just being fast, but Wilkerson’s sprint speed according to Baseball Savant is in the 67th percentile at 27.4 feet per second. He’s got some wheels. His previous plus-defensive experience throughout the infield and his ability to switch-hit were also indicators that this could work. So far, the way he glides in the outfield after spending his entire playing career in the infield shows the Orioles were justified in taking such a risk. But as expected, he’s shown he’s vulnerable.

Super small sample sizes are bad for defensive metrics, so Wilkerson’s current -2 defensive runs saved and -1.0 ultimate zone rating are still up for debate. But he is still learning a very difficult position, and you can see it.

The end result of this play is terrific. Wilkerson makes a phenomenal grab to put a choke hold on a potential Indians comeback attempt. But this play also shows how raw he is in the outfield. At the point in which Wilkerson makes his read on the baseball, he’s really flat-footed and those choppy steps towards the wall are incredibly suspect. But it never matters, because he has such a tremendous feel for the defensive aspect of the game. His athletic ability erased any mistakes prior to making the catch, and that’s special.

This is another play that looks great for the highlight reel, but there’s a missing element to his outfield play. This is a batted ball with a 91 mph exit velocity that kind of hovers into the gap, but Wilkerson gets a tremendous jump and does everything trying to get to the ball. But instead of taking a deeper route towards the wall, he takes a straight line to the baseball, which forces him to make a leaping grab rather than having a chance to settle under the baseball. Is this nitpicking? Oh, definitely, but athleticism can only get you so far when playing the outfield or anywhere behind the pitcher.

With time, this experiment could prove to be a genius move for a first time general manager and manager who are short on much talent at the moment. Plugging a utility infielder into center field with plus speed and a natural defensive skill set can only go from average (what it is now) to something even more impressive. Until Cedric Mullins starts to hit, there is no other member of the Orioles organization that can be assumed to play center fielder better than Wilkerson.

More than anything, these issues are mostly fundamental. Wilkerson has never played outfield at any level of baseball, and now he’s playing the rangiest position in baseball at its hardest level. That takes a tremendous amount of reliance, but there is reason for such trust.

Stevie Wilkerson is an athlete. Athletes are coachable. Athletes absorb and output coaching better than the mortals among us. Wilkerson has the tools in place to make himself not just a placeholder in center field, but a potential solution. This small plot line of the 2019 Orioles season, as well as a handful of others, is why I intend to watch. Right now, the writing for this season sucks, but it shouldn’t stop you from seeing the story all the way through.