For some, it’s the end of the road.
A fringe role on a last place team may not be the most coveted spot in baseball, but it’s still a dream come true. Players face a large enough challenge to make it to the big leagues and an even tougher one to stay there. Once a player returns to the minors, there is no guarantee he will put on a major league uniform again.
That’s what makes a redemption story so special. César Valdez has received a tremendous amount of attention for his comeback story and rightfully so. Matt Harvey’s return to Citi Field, despite the outcome, warranted praise.
Maybe it’s the recent losing streak— or the 20,000th MLB player making his debut last week— but something has me taking a step back and appreciating how truly impressive it is when a guy makes it to the show.
Stevie Wilkerson and Austin Wynns have already achieved that goal. Not only that, but they have made it back for another round. Now, thanks to their hard work and a swiss-cheese roster, they both have a long-term audition to prove they belong in Baltimore.
Both Wilkerson and Wynns missed out on the 2020 shortened season. Wilkerson suffered a phalanx fracture in his left ring finger that cost him the year. As for Wynns, well, Baltimore never called. Even with the expanded rosters, Wynns never made an appearance for the big club last season. The Orioles turned to veteran free agent Bryan Holaday to serve as the third catcher while Wynns worked out at the alternative site.
Flash forward to today, and both hold spots on the 26-man roster.
Wilkerson and Wynns are not Valdez and Harvey. Wilkerson is still just 29 years old, and Wynns turned 30 last December. And yet, even with Baltimore in the “evaluating talent” stage of the rebuild, both began this season as afterthoughts.
The Orioles drafted Wilkerson in the eighth round of the 2014 draft. The Clemson product posted mostly underwhelming numbers in the minors before making his debut in 2018. Wilkerson became a fixture in Baltimore’s 2019 lineup while slashing .225/.286/.383 through 117 games. He demonstrated an ability to play center field and garnered national attention with his relief appearances on the mound.
Still, Wilkerson never figured to be more than a stopgap. He’s quick, but he has just five steals over 146 games. He tallied 10 homers in 2019 but struck out during 108 of his 329 at bats.
The Orioles turned to Ryan McKenna over Wilkerson as an outfield solution, and felt more confident in Ramón Urías and Pat Valaika in the utility department this year. If Jahmai Jones remained healthy at Triple-A, Wilkerson may still be waiting for a call.
Regardless, the Orioles recalled Wilkerson after designating Rio Ruiz for assignment on May 18. Wilkerson had briefly become a free agent prior to signing a minor-league deal with the Orioles this past offseason. He slashed .357/.438/.476 over 12 games with the Tides before the promotion.
It’s too small of a sample size to bust out the defensive metrics, but Wilkerson has looked the part at second base. He has yet to make an error, and has made several head-turning plays. He’s the Orioles best option at the position right now, but how can he stay there?
Simply put, he needs to get on base more often. Wilkerson enters tonight’s game hitting just .179 with a .256 on base percentage. He has struck out 16 times and walked three times. Wilkerson will never be a power threat, but a .487 OPS is more than 50 points lower than Ruiz. The switch hitter has two hits in two at bats against left handers, but is 5-for-37 against righties. Those two at bats against southpaws are not enough to warrant a platoon and there is no one to pair him with anyway.
Wilkerson can cling to the second base job with health and defense, but it will take a better eye at the plate to make his career last into his thirties. His speed, defensive versatility and hard-nosed style of play make him an attractive 26th man for a winning club if he can produce more at the plate.
The Orioles promoted Wynns after optioning Chance Sisco on Monday. Sisco had hit just .154/.247/.185. That .185 slugging percentage is not a typo and neither is his .431 OPS. Sisco produced borderline Chris-Davis level sighs when he entered the batting box, so the bar could not be much lower for Wynns.
Sisco’s woes at the plate and Pedro Severino’s inability to keep the ball in front of him made Wynns a sight for sore eyes. His .333/.448/.563 slash line at Norfolk sweetened the deal, and his .234 average over 184 major league at bats represented a real improvement. He is not regarded as an above average defender, but can be judged on his play this year.
The Orioles’ brass likely does not hold Wynns in high regard or they would have utilized him last year, but last year’s Holaday signing should provide motivation for Wynns. There is always a need for catching depth across the league, and Wynns could carve out his next opportunity with a decent showing in Baltimore.
This team has been difficult to watch this year (and last year, and the year before that, and the year before that), but no one can question the effort of the players. While guys like John Means and Trey Mancini produce league-leading stats, Wilkerson and Wynns are fighting just as hard to prove their worth. The stage is set for both to prove they belong in the show. If either have the chops to make it, the time is now.