CLEARWATER, FLA. — Ryan Flaherty expected to be back with the Orioles this season, and so did most in the organization who kept in close contact throughout the offseason with the team’s utility infielder for the past six seasons. And as the offseason wore on, Flaherty remained a free agent and the Orioles didn’t acquire a clear successor for his utility spot, and it seemed even more likely that Flaherty would return to Baltimore.
But on Saturday afternoon, Flaherty wore the red and white of the Philadelphia Phillies, playing third base against his former team in the Orioles’ split-squad road game at Spectrum Field.
The 31-year-old Flaherty didn’t sign with the Phillies until less than a week before spring training began, accepting a minor league deal that can make him $1.9 million if he makes the major league club.
He was seeking a major league deal, but after seeing other utility men such as Ryan Goins (Kansas City Royals) and Adam Rosales (Phillies) settle for minor league deals, he realized he would likely have to as well. While the slow offseason hurt many big-ticket free agents, it also hurt players looking to earn a roster spot, like Flaherty.
The arbitration process, which rewarded Flaherty with annual raises to the point where he made $1.8 million last season, also raised his market value in a way that teams assumed he’d be too pricey.
Asked before Saturday’s game whether it would be strange seeing Flaherty in another uniform, Orioles manager Buck Showalter said: “A little bit. Ask me afterward. … He’s the type of guy people really don’t appreciate until he’s gone.”
The Phillies reached out to Flaherty early, and they are a club that had deep knowledge of him because of the plentiful Orioles ties in their front office and game staff.
But after spending so much time with the Orioles, and filling an important need with the team, it always seemed like Flaherty would be back. And right now, the Orioles have no clear replacement for the utility infielder, with Éngelb Vielma, Luis Sardiñas and Rubén Tejada competing for the spot.
“I have a lot of loyalty to the Orioles,” Flaherty said Saturday. “I talked to them a lot in the offseason, so I don’t think either side could say there wasn’t interest there. I really don’t know how to word it. It just happened. I talked to Dan [Duquette] and Buck and Brady [Anderson], and was in communication with them in the offseason.”
So how did Flaherty land in Philadelphia? Flaherty didn’t want to discuss details, but according to sources, he sat on his offer from the Phillies — staying in touch with the Orioles and waiting for an offer — for three weeks before Philadelphia set an early-February deadline because the club needed to go in another direction if he declined.
Jonathan Schoop’s elbow injury isn’t expected to force the Orioles’ starting second baseman to miss an extended amount of time, but his absence from the team’s Grapefruit League opener Friday afternoon served as an early-spring reminder that the team could be in trouble if an infielders goes down.
The Orioles had their opportunity to match the Phillies’ offer, and Flaherty was even willing to return for less money, but their counteroffer didn’t get club-wide approval in time to meet the Phillies’ deadline, so he had to take the offer that was on the table.
A similar situation happened earlier in the offseason with Goins, according to a source, that the Orioles had a major league deal worked out to fill the team’s utility spot, but it didn’t get ownership approval in time, and Goins signed a minor league deal with the Royals.
The Orioles haven’t completely turned the page on a potential reunion with Flaherty. He’s far from guaranteed a spot, and he has an opt-out in his contract in late March, so if he isn’t guaranteed a spot on the Phillies’ Opening Day roster, he has the option of becoming a free agent.
For now, he’s still getting used to a new organization while finding out where he fits.
“Yeah for sure [it’s different],” Flaherty said. “I think you just get used to your rituals, all the little stuff, where you park. You get used to all that stuff. It’s an adjustment for sure. When I first came to the Orioles, it was too. Right now, I’m still getting to meet people and stuff like that.”
Meanwhile, the Orioles will gauge which utility man currently in camp could succeed Flaherty. In Saturday’s game against the Phillies, Showalter switched Sardiñas and Tejada between shortstop and second base to get an early glimpse of them at both positions.