LAKELAND, FLA. — It's no coincidence that Orioles Rule 5 roster candidate Drew Jackson got his first spring start in right field Monday against the Detroit Tigers, a spot that he's never previously played in a professional game.
Manager Brandon Hyde frequently said this spring that he wants everyone to play at some point in a position that he might occupy during the season. While there are several other candidates to play right field in the time remaining in Orioles camp, with Joey Rickard the leader, Jackson could be just as much a fourth outfielder as he is a utility infielder after Austin Hays and Anthony Santander were cut from major league camp Sunday.
Monday's assignment excited Jackson, who has gotten more outfield work this spring than he has the rest of his professional career combined, and believes he can excel wherever he plays.
"I've worked a lot, especially this spring," Jackson said. "I've been out there a lot, doing a lot of work. I've played mainly center field in the past really, but I feel pretty comfortable at the corner spots too and I'm going to get some reps there today, and then continue working out there in practice. I think I can be an elite corner outfielder as well."
Jackson's speed and arm meant he started eight games in center field in the past two minor league seasons around his primary positions of shortstop and second base, and has played that many games in center field this spring. The right field start didn't come with any kind of message from the coaches, he said.
"I think it's just understood," Jackson said. "This whole spring, I told them I was ready for anything. If that means third base, that means catcher, or right field, I'm in."
Monday’s game provided an early challenge on a slicing ball toward the foul line that Jackson came in on late and couldn’t catch, though he had the wherewithal to throw to second to get the lead runner out. He called it a “funky one,” but one that he was glad to get a look at.
“That's what spring training is for, and that's what getting my reps out there in right field are for,” Jackson said. “I've got to see how guys are hit coming off guys bats, and with more experience, the better I'll get.”
Said Hyde: “He's going to continue to get opportunities at different spots for that reason — when you're used to playing center or playing an unnatural position, you can take all the live balls off the bat all you want in BP and do drills, but it's different in a game.”
The first-year manager is understandably excited about the prospect of having someone like Jackson able to do as many things as he can on a roster that's being built with flexibility in mind. He said they "still have a lot of decisions to make" when asked about how much Jackson's versatility helps his roster case.
If he doesn’t make the 25-man roster, Jackson must be sent through waivers and offered back to the Los Angeles Dodgers, who lost him in the Rule 5 draft in December then traded him to the Orioles, keeping those same roster restrictions intact.
By virtue of the way executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias talked about the aversion to losing Rule 5 players Sunday and Jackson's impactful spring that's been evidenced by far more than his .368 batting average entering Monday, it's more a question of whether such a green outfielder has done enough for Hyde to be comfortable with him patrolling unfamiliar outfield spots when the games count.
There are still other corner options like recently acquired Dwight Smith Jr. and non-roster invitee Eric Young Jr., but Hyde believes the Orioles can manage with Jackson as a super-sub in the outfield behind Trey Mancini, Cedric Mullins, and Rickard.
"I think because we're versatile and we have some versatility in the outfield, where guys can play — Rickard can play different spots, Mullins has moved around a little bit," Hyde said. "I would be comfortable with him being the fourth outfielder, but I think we're still a ways away. We still have other guys that are in the mix, for sure, and guys that have done things in the big leagues, from EY and D-Smith and some other guys. There's a lot of factors there."
Jackson, who has played almost every day in camp, said he hasn't had the opportunity to look around and realize how good the three sets of roster moves were for his candidacy to make the team. He said he just hopes the work he's put in carries him to a good season no matter where he is. While he hopes it’s in Baltimore, he realizes the value of this spring regardless.
"I'd say just polishing all areas of my game — defensively, at the plate, working with [hitting coach Don Long] and [assistant hitting coach Howie Clark] on approach and cleaning everything up and getting myself ready to be more consistent every day, because that's the player I've got to be,” Jackson said. “I'll be plugged in any time, anywhere, so I've got to be ready to go. Learning how to jump into a game, and how to come off the bench ready also."
Roster still in flux
When Hyde mentioned the versatility of Mullins and Rickard in a way that meant Jackson would be complementing them on the major league team, he was asked whether that meant those two were on the team. He said no one had been told they were on the team except Opening Day starter Alex Cobb, and while there are plenty of deductions to be made otherwise, that might not change until camp ends March 25.
"I haven't told anybody they're on the team," Hyde said. "I'm waiting to see. ... You just never know what's going to happen. There's a waiver wire that happens every single day, and in our situation, we're always looking, trying to add talent. I'm not making any promises to anybody right now.
"There's a lot of different factors. There's certain guys have outs, we have three Rule 5 guys. We're stretching this out as long as possible because of so many question marks. That's why I can't give you any concrete answers, because honestly, I have no idea about so many guys, and some spots in the bullpen and what our outfield situation is like — still. The catching situation."
On that front, Hyde said the team hadn't discussed the reported March 22 opt-out that non-roster invitee Jesús Sucre has in his contract, in which he can leave the organization if he won't be on the major league roster. With Austin Wynns working his way back from an oblique injury and still a few days away from games, the Orioles might not be able to wait on Wynns before making that decision.
Around the horn
In what appears to be a maneuver to get Cobb on schedule for his Opening Day start, the Orioles have left-hander Josh Rogers pitching in what would have been his turn in the rotation Thursday against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Having Cobb start Saturday would put him on schedule for that assignment March 28 in New York. ... Hyde said infielder Renato Núñez was dealing with some minor arm soreness, causing the team to hand Ryan Mountcastle the start at designated hitter. Mountcastle had a good spring while in major league camp but was reassigned last Sunday as part of the second round of cuts.