Speaking before the Orioles’ exhibition win Sunday night against the Phillies, manager Brandon Hyde remarked how the competition for several reserve roles had intensified in recent days, with four players battling for two, maybe three spots. The situation at Summer Camp was similar to Spring Training, when utility players engaged
Speaking before the Orioles’ exhibition win Sunday night against the Phillies, manager Brandon Hyde remarked how the competition for several reserve roles had intensified in recent days, with four players battling for two, maybe three spots. The situation at Summer Camp was similar to Spring Training, when utility players engaged in perhaps the fiercest positional fight of camp.
Now an injury may have cleared it up.
Orioles utility man Stevie Wilkerson was removed from Sunday’s contest with an injury to his left ring finger after sliding to take a hit away from Jean Segura in right field. Wilkerson seemed to jam his wrist into the ground making the second-inning play, and he was lifted for pinch-hitter Dilson Herrera to lead off the following frame.
Hyde said Wilkerson would see a hand specialist Monday to gauge the severity of the injury. Hyde also said the Orioles are placing outfielder Dwight Smith Jr. on the COVID-19 injured list, a move related to Smith’s late arrival to camp. Smith tested positive during intake screening and was activated Friday; he can be removed from the IL at any time but is uncertain for Opening Day.
Smith and Wilkerson's situations are related.
An infielder by trade, Wilkerson was thrust into the Orioles' everyday center-field job last season, hitting .225 with 10 homers and a .669 OPS in 117 games. He also made a name for himself with a series of emergency relief appearances. The 28-year old is competing against Herrera, Pat Valaika and Andrew Velazquez for one of at least a few open bench roles. The uncertain status of Smith and Wilkerson now makes versatility an even greater need.
“I wish I could keep all of them,” Hyde said prior to first pitch.
Ultimately, all would bring one common skill to the Orioles’ roster: versatility. Wilkerson was thrown into center field without any experience; he also can play both corner outfield spots, second and third. Velazquez’s primary positions are short and center -- a rare combination -- but he can theoretically sub anywhere. Valaika came up as a shortstop, can play left and saw time at all four infield spots last season.
A natural second baseman, Herrera now plays all four corner spots. He might own the most power in the group, having socked 24 homers in 117 games for Mets' Triple-A squad in 2019. Herrera and Valaika profile best at the corners, where Smith was projected to get regular reps as the club’s fourth outfielder.
“There is something in every one of these guys’ games that fits in nicely with our ballclub, and that’s going to be a really tough decision at the end -- one I’m not looking forward to, to be honest with you,” Hyde said. “They all bring a little bit of something different.”
If Wilkerson needs to miss even a little time, the utility spots on the roster become a decision Hyde doesn’t have to make. Also in the mix until recently was Richie Martin, who underwent wrist surgery last week and will miss the season. Without either available, the O’s can probably massage their expanded roster enough to squeeze at least two (maybe three) utility types onto their original 30-man unit. But four feels unlikely, given the recent uncertainty that’s sprouted up on the pitching side, the return of two regular outfielders in Anthony Santander and Smith and the possibility they also carry a third catcher.
As the only member of the group currently on the 40-man roster, Velazquez looks like the only lock. The club currently has one 40-man spot available; the rest depends on how many roster spots the Orioles think they can juggle without losing anyone, given that Valaika, Wilkerson and Herrera would all need to be added to make the team. Velazquez and Wilkerson both have Minor League options remaining; Herrera and Valaika are in camp on Minor League deals.
Hyde did not provide a tangible update on John Means, whose status for Opening Day remains unclear due to arm fatigue, only saying that the left-hander underwent treatment and “felt a lot better” Sunday. Hyde indicated a decision regarding Opening Day could come as early as Monday.
The manager said there were “contingency plans” in the event Means can't start, but he did not detail them. Hyde said the preference would be not to replace Means with anyone on short rest, seemingly eliminating any of the Orioles projected rotation members from making the start. Means emerged into an All-Star as a rookie last season, going 12-11 with a 3.60 ERA.
"I prefer not to have anybody pitch on short rest,” Hyde said. “We’re hoping John can make that start, but I just don’t have an answer right now and we can’t commit.”
One pitching alteration is set in stone: Right-hander Kohl Stewart will now start Tuesday’s exhibition game at Washington, Hyde said. He’ll replace Wade LeBlanc, who will instead throw a simulated game at Oriole Park. Hyde said Shawn Armstrong, Mychal Givens and Evan Phillips will also pitch in the game, as well as possibly David Hess.
It’s a big assignment for Stewart, whom the Orioles want to see more of prior to Opening Day. The 25-year-old, a former fourth overall Draft pick, is in the mix to make starts, come in after openers and/or serve in a longman role this season.
As of now the pitchers scheduled to throw behind Alex Cobb in Monday’s exhibition against the Nationals are Richard Bleier, Travis Lakins, Paul Fry, Cesar Valdez, Rob Zastryzny.
The Orioles traveled Sunday without regulars José Iglesias, Santander and Smith, who instead binged at-bats during live batting practice back at Oriole Park. All have underlying but not pressing injury concerns: Iglesias has been playing through some minor stiffness, and Santander and Smith only recently reported to camp due to positive COVID-19 tests. At least Iglesias and Santander expected to debut in game action over the next few days.
From the trainer’s room
The Opening Day roster chances appear to be dwindling for right-hander Dillon Tate, who is yet to resume throwing after being hit on the right forearm with a comebacker on July 10. The Orioles had hoped Tate, their No. 27 prospect per MLB Pipeline, would play catch this weekend at some point, but he did not progress far enough to do so.
Live on MLB.TV, the Orioles return home Monday to continue their three-game exhibition slate with a 6:05 p.m. ET matchup vs. the Nationals at Oriole Park -- the first in a mini two-game series between the Beltway rivals. Cobb, the veteran righty, will take the ball, looking to bounce back after missing all but three starts last season due to hip surgery.
Joe Trezza covers the Orioles for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JoeTrezz.