TORONTO — The last time Orioles fans saw second baseman Brian Roberts on the field, he was being carried off in Tampa Bay, his face wincing in pain, in the Orioles' third game of the regular season.
Behind the scenes, Roberts has been working his way back from a right hamstring injury. He's been sprinting through the outfield three hours before games, taking ground balls and working alongside strength coach Joe Hogarty to regain his strength in his surgically repaired right hamstring.
"I'm as excited as I've ever been," Roberts said. "I'm really looking forward to getting back out there."
Roberts' return in the coming weeks could help solidify second base, where the Orioles have gotten little offensive production this season. Entering Thursday, their .217 batting average by second basemen was the lowest at the position in the American League, and their 16 RBIs was tied for second-fewest in the majors.
But since the beginning of the 2010 season, Roberts has played in just 21 percent of the Orioles' games, sidelined by multiple concussions, a hip injury and this season's hamstring injury. He has played in just 118 games over the past 3 ½ years, and lingering questions remain as to whether Roberts can be productive and remain healthy.
Considering that and the struggles fellow second basemen Ryan Flaherty and Alexi Casilla have had at the plate, the position remains one of the biggest question marks as the Orioles (42-31 and second place in the AL East) aim for a second straight postseason berth.
"I feel normal again"
The 35-year-old Roberts — who is in the final year of a four-year, $40 million contract — said he's had his own doubts about his health, especially last season, when he said he tried to return without fully being 100 percent back from the concussions.
"Coming off the two years before that, I think there were a lot of questions within my own mind as well as everyone else's. 'Can he perform at a level that he used to?'" Roberts said. "Hopefully some of that was able to be answered in spring training and in that first series. I think it was big for myself and big for people to hopefully see that the head stuff is behind me. My body will eventually be fine. I had a couple physical issues, but I think for the most part, the problem was my head."
Orioles manager Buck Showalter believes Roberts could go on a minor league rehab assignment by next week. The club hopes Roberts can return before the All-Star break.
"He's been working hard for a long time," Showalter said. "It's just a matter of playing a couple games, not a couple, but whatever they think he needs."
Roberts had provided stability at the second base position for years before his last 3 ½ seasons have been ravaged by injuries. He began this year with a productive spring training, slowing flashes of his former self, and he was 5-for-12 in the first series of the regular season before injuring his hamstring diving into second on a successful stolen base.
Roberts believes the concussion problems are finally behind him. Last November, he stopped having the headaches that plagued him. He stopped waking up dizzy. He said an eye-training program recommended to him by Adam Greenberg, who battled back from a concussion suffered from getting hit in the head in his first major league at-bat, has worked wonders.
"If I was to be 100 percent honest, I still didn't feel great last year," said Roberts, who batted .182 in 17 games in 2012 before a hip injury ended his season. "But it gets to the point where you try to convince yourself that you're good enough, because you really don't know what good enough is. You know you feel a little better than three, six months before that, but now I know I feel normal again. I know that I didn't completely feel normal last year."
With Roberts sidelined, former Rule 5 pick Flaherty has made most of the starts at second base. Flaherty, who made the club out of spring training as the team's super-utility player, opened the season with an 0-for-17 slump and was hitting just .133 on May 18 when he was sent to Triple-A Norfolk for 10 days in attempt to help him get his swing back.
"When you get off to a tough start, the biggest thing is you're trying to get hits," the 26-year-old Flaherty said. "That's not the way to get out of it, because a line out affects you and then it's a strikeout after that. So you just have to go out there and have good at-bats, be productive. And whether it ends in an out or not, you can't base yourself off that."
Despite his struggles, Flaherty has flourished defensively. His is second among AL second baseman in total zone runs — a metric that gauges a player's defensive value based on the number of plays he makes. Flaherty has also been nearly flawless turning double plays.
Since returning from Norfolk, Flaherty has batted .242, including two hits in each of the past two games, which have raised his season average to .178.
"I feel a lot more comfortable at the plate," he said. "I think the results maybe haven't showed. You want to be producing offensively, so hitting .160 or whatever, you need to make sure you're not just worried about hits. You've got to worry about good at-bats and not worry about results."
When Flaherty was in the minors, Casilla and Yamaico Navarro split time at second. Navarro's stay was short-lived. He was optioned back to Norfolk after three starts and was designated for assignment Tuesday.
Casilla's playing time has been sporadic. Showalter said he likes having Casilla's speed — he's been successful on 26 of his 28 stolen-base attempts over the past two seasons — as a late-inning weapon off the bench. While he has fine defensive range, Casilla has never been able to hold on to a starting job in his career. The club invested $1.9 million in Casilla this offseason — he has a $1.7 million deal this year and a $3 million 2014 option with a $200,000 buyout — but he is hitting just .211 in 71 at-bats.
"The most important part of the position is turning the double play, and [Flaherty and Casilla] have done a good job of that," Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette said.
Asked if the club would be interested in upgrading the second base position by trade, Duquette has said he's happy with the existing options. Plus, the pool of pending free-agent second basemen who could be available on the trade market isn't a deep one. Besides the Philadelphia Phillies' Chase Utley, who has also dealt with a number of injury issues, the best options that could be available are light-hitting Los Angeles Dodgers infielders Skip Schumaker and Nick Punto.
The Orioles' future at the position greatly depends on the development of 21-year-old Jonathan Schoop, the organization's top position-player prospect. The Orioles see promise in Schoop, who played well in the Arizona Fall League and for the Netherlands in the World Baseball Classic. But Schoop is on the disabled list with a stress fracture in his lower back. He could still be an option at some point this season, but probably not until August at the earliest.
"He's young," Duquette said. "He needs a little more seasoning. No question about that. He's a real capable kid. He's highly regarded. He's got some serious power. He can play second base. He has good hands and a good arm."
While Schoop, who came up as a shortstop, has played second base for most of the past two seasons, he could end up at third if his power projects there, especially if the Orioles eventually transition Manny Machado to shortstop.
As for Roberts, he hopes to dictate how the the position shakes out for the rest of this season. He realizes these might be his final months in an Orioles uniform, and if that's the case, he wants to make the best of it.
"I was fortunate enough to be here my whole career," Roberts said. "And the Angelos family and the Orioles put a lot of trust in me to play, and I haven't been able to do that as much as I'd like, so I feel like this is kind of a last breath of fresh air for me now.
"Our organization's in a really good place and for me to be able to hopefully come back and contribute for the last half of the season and contribute to something special, no matter what happens next year, wherever I am or am not, that would be something that would be pretty special for me."
twitter.com/EddieInTheYardCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun