By Eduardo A. Encina
The Baltimore Sun
8:40 PM EST, February 16, 2013
SARASOTA, Fla. — On the eve of the first full workout of the spring, Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts stood in front of his locker and gave one of the first proclamations of camp.
Roberts, who has been limited to 115 games over the past three seasons by various injuries, was asked about the logjam at the position he once manned on an every-day basis.
"I still feel like, barring anything else, I don't mean any disrespect to anyone, but I still feel like I'm our best option," Roberts said about the starting second base job. "I still feel like I can provide a lot to this team."
After a season in which five Orioles saw time at the position, manager Buck Showalter agrees. If Roberts is healthy, he's the man, but the question of who will be the Opening Day starting second baseman is still among the most intriguing of spring training.
In the offseason, the Orioles claimed Alexi Casilla off waivers from the Minnesota Twins. He will compete for playing time at second base, as will Ryan Flaherty, a Rule 5 pick last year who started at the position in three of the six playoff games.
Showalter said if Roberts is healthy, he's the starting second baseman. And Roberts was a full participant in the first full workout of spring training Saturday for the first time in three years. After battling a back injury, multiple concussions and offseason hip and sports hernia surgeries, Roberts feels healthier than he's been since he played 159 games in 2009.
"Coming into this spring, I was planning on Robby being able of doing what he's capable of doing," Showalter said. "If he's healthy, I expect him to do that for us. He'd be the first to tell you, some of those challenges he's had, I don't think he's planning on anything but being healthy and being our second baseman. I respect that. I know that's how he came in here. He wants to get us a reminder of how good a player he is and what a contributor he is for us."
Roberts, however, hasn't played in more than 59 games in a season since 2009. He's also in the final year of a four-year, $40-million contract.
Casilla, 28, was the Twins' starting second baseman three of the past four seasons, but he has never played in more than 106 games in his seven years in the big leagues. He said he was shocked when Minnesota placed him on waivers in October. The Orioles, craving a solid second base option with speed, quickly claimed him.
"As soon as I was picked up by the O's, I knew they had Brian," Casilla said. "But right now, I don't know what's going to happen. I just do what I do and be ready, be ready for everything. I'm really excited though."
Showalter said Casilla will see time at shortstop and third base, signaling that he could be the team's reserve utility infielder if Roberts remains healthy.
Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette lauds Casilla's range at second base — his 5.33 range factor per nine innings ranked first among American League second baseman last year — and his base-stealing ability. He's been successful on 88.75 percent of his steal attempts in his career (71 steals in 80 attempts) and stole 21 out of 22 bases in 106 games last season. The Orioles stole just 58 bases last season, fewest in the majors.
Those are two areas — team defense and base stealing — that the Orioles have dedicated their offseason to improving.
Casilla also had a strong offseason in the Dominican winter league, recording a .289/.349/.428 lines and stealing 7 of 10 bases in 37 games.
Showalter said Saturday that there could be a situation where a healthy Roberts, Casilla and Flaherty make the team, but Flaherty would make the 25-man roster out of camp based on his own defensive flexibility, namely his ability to play three different infield positions and in the outfield.
Flaherty, 26, had to remain on the team's 25-man roster last season as a Rule 5 draft pick. And by the end of the season he was platooning with the since-traded Robert Andino for the starting second base job.
He played five positions in the field, but made 25 of his 42 starts at second base. After a second-half disabled list stint that included a lengthy rehab assignment in the minors, Flaherty seemed to get more comfortable with the major league game — showing better range and more discipline at the place — but he does have options and can be sent to the minors this season.
"I don't want to hold his versatility against him," Showalter said of Flaherty." I think Ryan Flaherty has a chance to be an everyday player and contributor. If you put his numbers over the at-bats and look at his background, he's got a chance to be an everyday player at a couple of positions, really, three or four. I'd love to be able to settle in with him.
Flaherty also hit seven homers in 164 at bats, including the postseason, last year, showing the ability to hit for power.
"I came back and got some at-bats here," Flaherty said. "I got into a groove, and I definitely felt good coming back from that. Last year was not only my first year with the Orioles, but it was my first year in big league camp in general. That makes it easier."
It makes for an intriguing plot line at second base this spring, but it will all revolve around the health of the 35-year-old Roberts. Because of the World Basebal Classic, this year's spring training is longer, and Roberts sees that working in his advantage.
"I just need to play," Roberts said. "That's going to be the biggest thing, to just get out there. I'm excited to have a full spring. I told Buck, 'I want to play, I want to play a lot.' He said, 'I'm not going to kill you,' but I said, 'I want to play.' I want to get game action. That's the only way to get where you want to be physically and mentally and emotionally, to get out there and play and have some success and feel confident in your body and everything else that's going on."
If Roberts, who played in just 17 games last season, can recapture some form of his best years — when he averaged 46 doubles and 35 steals from 2003 to 2009 — he will quickly quell any debate.
"I still feel like the guys in this room want me out there and know I can provide something," Roberts said. "That's the way I approach it. I approach it every day that I'm going to be the second baseman until they tell me something else."
Copyright © 2013, The Baltimore Sun