For well-traveled utility infielder Hanser Alberto, the euphoria that came with the surprising news that he had made the Orioles’ Opening Day roster in March also came with an emotional price.
Alberto, who was designated for assignment twice and waived four times during a four-month sojourn through the intricacies of Major League Baseball’s roster revision process, knew that the rebuilding Orioles probably afforded him his last best chance to earn a regular big league paycheck. He also knew that his place on the regular-season roster depended on several factors, all but one of which — his performance — were out of his control.
“To be honest, I always had that concern," Alberto said Tuesday. “When [starting pitcher] Alex Cobb got hurt in spring training, I made the team and then I was afraid when he came back, there was going to be some movement and I was going to be involved in that movement.”
Everyone knows what happened after that. Alberto also benefitted from an organizational decision to keep several of the team’s top young prospects in the minors when the big league team broke camp, but he still had to find a way to hold his place on a team that would average almost a roster transaction per day throughout the season.
“I was a little afraid," he said. “That’s why I came every day working hard. Then when I got a chance to play, I tried to do my best and tried to get a good result. That was what I did and they didn’t send me somewhere else. They kept me on the team and gave me a chance to show what I got and help the team.”
There is no way to calculate the odds against how it all turned out. The Orioles liked Alberto’s minor league credentials, but not enough that anyone imagined he would enter this week’s home series against the Los Angeles Dodgers ranked fourth in the American League with a .321 batting average.
“I did not expect him to compete for the batting title, but it’s been unbelievable," Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said. “I think he’s been a real bright spot for us, and he’s exactly what I’ve been talking about. You make some waiver claims. You give some guys some playing time, and you never know what’s going to happen.”
It’s a feel-good story for the ages, but it’s also an example of how fragile the future can be for a young player living on the bubble. Alberto started only one of the Orioles’ first seven games, but he hit safely in each of the first seven games in which he had at least one plate appearance. If he had gone hitless over that relatively short span, there’s a pretty good chance we would hardly remember he was here.
Manager Brandon Hyde acknowledged that the other day. Baseball’s statistical database is full of players who worked just as hard to get into the same position and — unfairly or not — had possibly promising careers cut short by the inability to hang onto that last, best opportunity.
“That’s pro sports," Hyde said. “There are a lot of good players who didn’t take advantage of an opportunity that affects careers and Hanser has been through the ringer a little bit with the DFA process, so it’s such a great feeling to watch a guy put the year up that he’s had when he didn’t know what was going to happen five months ago.”
Hyde said at the time that he liked Alberto’s swing and his ability to play multiple positions, but the Orioles were one of the teams that DFA’d him before eventually getting him back.
“We had a big spring training roster," Hyde explained. “We had two Rule 5’s [draft picks]. We had Alcides Escobar. We had a lot of players, and Hanser fell into the roster shuffle trap, where he unfortunately needed a spot on the roster. I was hoping at that time that he would clear, which he didn’t.”
The San Francisco Giants claimed him and that would have been that, but Hyde wasn’t lying when he said he liked the kid who had failed to make an impression during three major league stints with the Texas Rangers. When the Giants placed him back on waivers, Hyde brought his name up with Elias and they decided to give him another chance.
“We were excited to have the opportunity to bring him back and he was excited as well,” Hyde said. “I think he really liked the coaches and the feel of our camp and knew he was going to have an opportunity to play here.”
He just had to wait until the Orioles got a better look Rule 5 draftees Richie Martin and Drew Jackson before he got a real chance to show what he could do.
“He kind of waited his turn and once he got the opportunity, he just kept getting hits, so I just kept putting him in there," Hyde said.
Alberto never hit better than .222 with the Rangers, and it didn’t help that he walked just four times and did not have a home run in 192 plate appearances over those three seasons. He still is not a great on-base guy (he had a .341 on-base percentage this season), but he set his mind toward developing some pop (11 homers) and his astounding .420 average against left-handed pitching leads the major leagues.
So, did he just need regular playing time? Did he just grow into a more effective hitter? Or was it just the knowledge that this might be his last rodeo?
“Kind of, yes," he said. “This was the exact opportunity that I needed. I thought in the beginning that I was on the perfect team to show my talent; to show them I could be at this level. After all that work and all the worries, I was a little afraid, but I kept my faith up. I kept my hope up. I kept everything up and I showed them that I can be here.”
It’s way too early to project how Alberto might fit into the Orioles long-term plans, but Elias clearly is impressed.
“I just think he’s somebody that’s able to put the barrel on the baseball," Hyde said. “I don’t know what it is with the left-handed pitching, but that’s really impressive and the energy level that he’s brought to the team has been palpable. Very excited that we have him. We’re going to keep moving him around defensively and working with him on his defense, but he’s another young guy, 25-years-old that has done about as much as anybody with the opportunity he’s been given here in Baltimore.”