The decision the Orioles face with Ryan Flaherty was already one of the most difficult ones of the of the spring before major league camp began, and as the team's days in Sarasota are whittled away, the 26-year-old utilityman has done nothing to make the organization's choice any easier.
Last season, as the Orioles' Rule 5 draft pick, the choice was more definitive. If the Orioles didn't keep Flaherty on the roster for the entire season, they'd very likely lose him.
This year, Flaherty can be optioned to the minor leagues. Given the experience he gained in 2012, the Orioles must decide whether it's best for Flaherty to remain with the big league club as a multidimensional bench player or to go to Triple-A Norfolk to get regular at-bats in preparation to be an everyday player with the Orioles eventually.
“It's not always revealed to you right out of the chute,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “With some conventional thinking about him going down and playing every day, I'm not sure how much of that he needs. That's the debate right now. We're always going to err on the side of [deciding] if he can help us win baseball games in the major leagues, and if so he will come up with us.”
The Orioles believed they got a steal when they plucked Flaherty from the Cubs with the fourth pick of the Rule 5 draft two Decembers ago. A former first-round supplemental pick out of Vanderbilt with a strong pedigree — Flaherty's father, Ed, is the longtime coach of Division III baseball power Southern Maine — his bat projected well to the major leagues. It was just a matter of where he would play in the field — Flaherty came up as a shortstop, but also spent considerable time at second and third in the Cubs' system — and whether he could be an everyday big league player.
And after one season, the Orioles believe the left-handed hitting Flaherty can be that. He didn't play much early on but progressed as the season went along and also benefited from a nine-game rehab stint in Triple-A Norfolk after a bacterial infection in August. Flaherty improved his OPS from .519 in the first half of the season to .773 in the second half.
In the postseason, Flaherty became the first Rule 5 pick to play in the playoffs the season after being drafted in 17 years and had hits in each one of his three starts. That included a third-inning homer in Game 3 of the American League Division Series at Yankee Stadium, as he became the first Oriole rookie to homer in the postseason. Including the postseason, Flaherty hit seven homers in 164 at-bats last year.
Now that he has logged a season of big league experience, Flaherty entered this year's spring training more comfortable in an Orioles uniform.
“It helped a ton,” Flaherty said. “Last year, everything was new. Everything I experienced was stuff that I never experienced before. There were a ton of firsts. … Everything I did, I felt that through everything I tried to get better. That was the ultimate goal.”
As a rookie, Flaherty formed a close relationship with 11-year veteran Nick Johnson, who played just 38 games because of a wrist injury. And he also looked to Jim Thome for advice after the Orioles acquired him in a trade with the Phillies in July.
“Even in the beginning of the year, when I wasn't playing [much], I remember Nick Johnson was telling me that people say in Triple-A you're getting at-bats but he told me to make yourself get better even when you're not playing, just by watching and learning things. Sometimes you can actually get just as much out of that as you can by actually hitting. So I kind of learned a lot from that, just by watching when I wasn't in there and then getting a change to play.”
That was a lesson Flaherty first learned growing up the son of a college coach in Maine, where high school seasons were limited to 16 games because of the weather. As a kid, Flaherty would be a constant presence around his father's program, learning from older players and taking in small nuances about the sport.
“He was one of those kids, he's just liked being around, even when he was a little guy,” said Ed Flaherty, whose Southern Maine team won Division III national titles in 1991 and 1997. “He was very observant. He caught on to everything. He watched a lot. And I think that played a role why he can play all those different positions. You could tell at a pretty young age that he has good knowledge of the game.”
Flaherty spent this offseason continuing his baseball education by playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic. He joked that when he received his travel itinerary for the trip, he couldn't understand it because it was in Spanish. He only got 43 at-bats playing for Escogido, but he used the opportunity to get more experience playing in the outfield.
“Think about all the things he's been exposed to in the past year,” Showalter said. “He didn't get the at-bats in the place he should have during winter ball, but just being there and seeing another phase of it, it was a lot of time to think about it and stay engaged.”
That's why Showalter isn't convinced yet that Flaherty should begin this season in Triple-A. Flaherty's strong spring has supported the theory that he might not necessarily need seasoning in the minors.
He's been one of the club's most consistent hitters — he has a .262/.367/.571 hitting line with four doubles, three homers and 10 RBIs in 23 spring games — and has shown vastly improved defensive range from the middle infield positions. The play Flaherty made during a split-squad game in Tampa against the Yankees, when he ranged deep into the hole at short and threw out a runner at first well into the outfield grass, might have been one of the highlight defensive plays of the spring.
“I think he looks more comfortable,” Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy said. “I definitely think there's a comfort level. He had a new team, a new organization, last year. When he played consistently last year he was pretty good. This spring, his swing looks really good — free and easy — and defensively he's playing a bunch of different positions and he's playing them all really well.”
With Hardy entrenched at short and second baseman Brian Roberts healthy, the Orioles this offseason claimed veteran Alexi Casilla, who can be the back-up to both middle-infield positions. So Flaherty's chances to make the team out of camp hinge greatly on the organization's faith that he can back up Chris Davis at first and be a reserve corner outfielder as well. He played parts of three games at first last year and has 15 starts in the outfield.
“I feel like defensively, for me to be versatile, to be able to play all over, is important,” Flaherty said. “And at the end of the day, you have to hit. So to try to learn from what I didn't do last year at the major league level and what I did do good, try to repeat that. I just take that into this year with a little more confidence into this camp.”
Because Flaherty can play six different positions, the Orioles believe he will get an adequate amount of at-bats. They also believe he has the promise of being a starter as soon as next season.
“Guys like him can sometimes help you win a game and not even be in the lineup and not even play [with] what he keeps other people from doing and what he allows me to do,” Showalter said. “I still think he's going to be an everyday player with us.”
But with a bench that projects to include Casilla, Wilson Betemit and backup catcher Taylor Teagarden, there's essentially only one spot left.
“You know, I'm glad I'm not the one who has to make the decision and that's why those people make those decisions,” Flaherty said. “But I want to help this team. Whenever I came here last year, I said, ‘Hey, whatever I can do to help the team, that's going to help myself, that's going to help anyone.' It's kind of the same view now. Whatever they decide is the best is what they decide, but I want to help this team win and that's my ultimate goal here.”
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