The Orioles started out this spring with a logjam in the outfield: Cedric Mullins, the lock in center after all of 45 major league games; Drew Jackson, a Rule 5 guy showing some promise and some pop; Dwight Smith Jr., a late pickup from Toronto turning heads in camp; long-time utility stalwart Joey Rickard; power-hitting prospect DJ Stewart; Anthony Santander, in his best shape physically and at the plate; Austin Hays, whose hot spring (.286/.318/.667 slash line) proved that the ankle injury was long behind him; Eric Young Jr., the reliable veteran who still had wheels; and Yusniel Diaz, centerpiece of the Machado trade and still the O’s No. 1 prospect. And that was without including Mark Trumbo and Trey Mancini, who had to be slotted in somewhere. Manager Brandon Hyde joked, “Maybe we’ll carry 10.”
Well, that headache cleared up fast, only to leave new ones. Young Jr. didn’t make the team despite a strong spring (anti-tricenarian prejudice rearing its ugly head). Rickard is gone. Mullins and Diaz are down in Bowie. Trumbo is probably out for the season (if not for good) with a knee condition. DSJ and Mancini continue to soldier on in left and right, despite defensive limitations and recent slumps, though Santander, Hays, and Stewart are all knocking at the door.
One answer that has not come out of the Magic 8-ball is who is supposed to man center field. Far and away the Orioles’ worst offensive position this year—and that’s saying something when Richie Martin (.162/.220/.492) and Chris Davis (.184/.268/.584), are getting regular starts at shortstop and first—so far, the search for someone to fill the gigantic hole Adam Jones left behind has turned up pretty slim pickings.
After Cedric Mullins posted an anemic .094 average (and -0.6 WAR) in 22 games there this season, a lot of the duties started falling on Joey Rickard, but the team was ready to declare that experiment over in June. Keon Broxton, picked up on May 22 from the Mets, has done a bang-up job defensively, but his .192/.245/.558 with 49 strikeouts in 34 games seems like an offensive ceiling, not a slump. Anthony Santander has gotten through 4 starts there without embarrassing himself, but his natural position is at the corners.
Right now, the club lead in games at center is held by a guy who played exactly sixteen innings in the outfield for the Norfolk Tides before getting called up to become the Orioles’ everyday starter there.
For the 27-year-old Wilkerson, an infielder drafted as a college senior in the eighth round in 2014 (not usually where you find major-league talent), this was a strange turn of events. A solid, not spectacular .268/.342/.714 hitter in the minors, Wilkerson—listed back then as “Stephen”—mostly flew under the radar. But he broke out with a hot 2017, hitting .305 in 112 games between Frederick and Bowie, then racking up a sizzling .317/.396/.908 line in 23 games in the Arizona Fall League (perhaps not coincidentally, sometime before the 2017 season, he’d started going by “Steve”). Well, Steve hit a big speed bump in 2018, getting slapped with a 50-game suspension for amphetamines followed by injuries to his hamstring and obliques, but after a couple of brief stints with the O’s in 2018, he became “Stevie” (hopefully for good), did a lot of conditioning in the offseason, and arrived in camp this season with an outside chance of making the roster. A mediocre spring scuttled those hopes, but when the center field job started to look up for grabs, his above-average athleticism and .323 average with Norfolk this season made him impossible to ignore.
It seemed like a long shot, as our own Harrison noted back in May, but since, Stevie has done a darn credible job at one of the toughest positions on the diamond. Over 272 innings in center, he has a gleaming 1.000 fielding percentage, and his speed and arm are playing well out there. In Wednesday’s game against the Nationals, for example, Wilkerson sprinted over to quickly field a gapper and made a quick, accurate throw to second to limit the damage on what could have been a triple by the speedy Trea Turner—not a web gem, but the kind of fundamentally sound, heads-up play coaches notice and appreciate. Sure, as Nick Cicere wrote in May, Wilkerson sometimes spins web gems out of routine plays by taking bad routes to the ball and having to hustle to snare it at the end. But his sheer athleticism allows him—mostly—to get away with it.
Most importantly for Wilkerson’s long-term fortunes, the bat is bouncing back. After reaching a peak average of .292 on May 17, the switch-hitting Wilkerson entered a sharp skid, falling to .211 at the end of June. But in seven games in the second half, he’s hitting .400 with 2 doubles, 2 home runs, and a crazy 1.229 OPS. Call it a hot stretch, but Wilkerson’s career-Triple A .294/.340/.818 slash line is consistent with what we’re seeing: a solid contact hitter with flashes of power from both sides. Wilkerson could develop into an everyday guy with consistent playing time, and he deserves a longer look in the lineup.
Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean in center. Stats, cruelly, don’t lie, and Wilkerson has a rather limp -2.0 UZR as a CF (albeit a 0.3 UZR in right field) according to Fangraphs, which doesn’t think much of his range (-1.2 range runs). Still, unlike a guy like Mancini, who’s not exactly built for speed, it stands to reason that Wilkerson’s defensive stats can and will improve as he gains experience.
Personally, though, I’d like to see the Orioles solve this puzzle by trading Jonathan Villar, allowing Wilkerson to move back to his natural position, where he is a plus defender (including over nine games at the big league last season), and having Austin Hays or Santander take the permanent gig in center.
Bottom line: wherever Wilkerson lands on the diamond, I hope that in the meantime he sticks in the lineup. It has been a strange rotating cast this season of bit players auditioning for a leading role, but Wilkerson has certainly shown enough hustle and talent to merit a longer look.