Roster competitions are not always what they seem.
Take a college football team with a few holes to fill. The quarterback returns with his top two targets from last season. While a group of young players battle it out for the third spot at wide receiver, they may not realize they are also competing with the second tight end.
A team can only run so many plays in so many formations. If the coach has more confidence in his second tight end over his third wide receiver, he’s more likely to utilize twelve personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers). All of a sudden that entire group of wideouts is sitting on the bench watching a big man waltz into the end zone.
Look, I get it. We made it through a long winter and it’s time to talk baseball. This isn’t ESPN.
That being said, the same logic applies to a manager and his bench. The most common debate revolves around how many pitchers or position players to carry, but there is another layer to that. The Orioles’ lack of pitching may require an extra arm at times this season, which only makes position battles more intriguing.
Common sense tells us that Baltimore’s roster will include either 13 or 14 pitchers. With a 26-man roster, that leaves three or four bench spots. One automatically goes to the backup catcher, which could leave as few as two open spots.
A bench almost always includes a player that can handle center field, and one that can play shortstop. On paper, that’s Cedric Mullins and Pat Valaika.
But what about a guy that can handle both? Stevie Wilkerson has played every position except first base and catcher. The super utility man will get starts in the infield and outfield this spring. Is it possible the O’s could achieve two things with a single action? (We’re not stoning any Birds around here).
To be fair, Stevie Wilkerson is not a shortstop. He has one career start at the position. The 29-year-old can play second or third base though, and the Orioles could shuffle Freddy Galvis or Yolmer Sanchez around to make it work in a pinch. Still, that’s a lot of effort for a career .219 hitter.
Any potential roster construction hits a snag when you mention Chris Davis. Will the veteran slugger be tabbed as the O’s designated hitter? If so, that likely leaves DJ Stewart on the outside looking in. Stewart has been a tough player to figure out, but his presence makes it much more difficult to find a spot for Wilkerson.
It is more likely that Baltimore begins the season with an even 13/13 roster split. O’s’ manager Brandon Hyde said it would depend on the status of the team’s starters, but the decision would not be made until Opening Day. Thirteen position players would open up an additional bench spot if all goes as planned.
Wilkerson’s defensive versatility makes him an intriguing option for the final spot. It prevents the O’s from choosing between an infielder or outfielder, but the presence of Stewart and Davis still likely wins out.
There are plenty of jokes to go around with the current state of Baltimore’s pitching. There will be nights when Dr. Poo Poo may actually represent an improvement on the mound, but no one is breaking camp with the team for mop-up duty.
Unfortunately for him, Wilkerson is not the only utility man on the roster. Pat Valaika showed enough pop last season (.277/.315/.475) while playing every infield position and both corner outfield spots to become a favorite. Newcomer Jahmai Jones can play second base and all three outfield positions. The Orioles added prospect Rylan Bannon to the 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule-5 draft, and the youngster can handle second or third.
Wilkerson missed all of 2020 with a broken ring finger. He appeared in 117 games the year prior and spent the majority (72) in center field. The Clemson product slashed just .225/.286/.383 in 2019, and the Orioles certainly hope to see better production out of center field this season.
With Davis still on the roster, Mullins and Austin Hays both a shoo-in to make the team, Stewart hanging around and the return of Valaika, it is extremely difficult to find a spot on this club for Wilkerson. It is unfortunate that he missed an opportunity to build on regular playing time last season, but experience alone will not warrant preferential treatment.
Wilkerson inked a minor-league deal with the O’s this offseason. He knew the current state of the roster, and likely anticipated an uphill battle. Still, no one should expect the Georgia native to take his foot off the gas. Hyde knows what he has in Wilkerson, and it would not be a surprise to see Dr. Poo Poo in Baltimore at some point this year.
The Orioles no longer counting on a .219 hitter to break camp with the team is a good thing. Baltimore’s roster options represent progress, albeit slow, in this rebuild. Youngsters like Bannon and Jones will get a chance to prove their worth, and Stewart and Mullins will be given more opportunities to grow. Still, don’t forget Wilkerson’s name quite yet.