For Flaherty, a golden opportunity; for Orioles, a difficult decision

SARASOTA, Fla. — The predicament the Orioles are facing with utility player Ryan Flaherty is one of the most difficult decisions to be made here in spring training.

And in an organization in desperate need of promising young talent like Flaherty but tight on 25-man roster spots, the decision becomes more perplexing.

The Orioles selected Flaherty, a first-round sandwich pick of the Chicago Cubs' in 2008, in December's annual Rule 5 draft, which allows teams to select certain players not protected on other teams' 40-man rosters. The club paid $50,000 for Flaherty's rights, but if the Orioles don't keep Flaherty on their 25-man roster for the entire season, the Cubs could buy him back for $25,000 — almost a certainty in Flaherty's case.

It's clear that Flaherty, 25, must earn a roster spot by showing his defensive flexibility. A natural shortstop, he has already seen ground balls at second base this camp. He will also see time at third and in the outfield.

"I've got to make sure I'm ready and be flexible," said Flaherty, who arrived in Sarasota a week early to get adjusted to a new organization. "I've got to be able to play a lot of positions. If that's what they need, then that's what they need. Wherever they need me to go, I'll go."

But so will utility men Matt Antonelli and Steve Tolleson. The competition among the three figures to be one of the more intriguing roster battles of the spring.

"Flaherty is what a Rule 5 draft pick is supposed to be," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "I've had some Rule 5 guys who after three or four days, I know there's no chance you can carry him. You got a chance to carry this young man."

This is Flaherty's first major league spring training camp, but Baseball America already ranks him the Orioles' seventh-best prospect — partly testament to Flaherty's promise but also a condemnation of the organization's minor league prospect depth.

But with Flaherty, the choice is tough: keep him on your major league roster or lose him.

"Taking a Rule 5 player and saying he's going to make a club in the American League East, you have to feel pretty strongly about it," Showalter said.

Flaherty is used to having little time to prove his worth. Growing up in Maine, snow and cold often blanketed the fields there, forcing 14-game high school schedules in the spring.

"If you go through a slump in a 14-game season, it's over," Flaherty said.

As the son of a college coach — his father, Ed, is the longtime coach at Division III power Southern Maine — he grew up on the baseball field, and there's a certain fundamental polish to his game because of that.

Bobby Dickerson, the Orioles' minor league infield coordinator, coached Flaherty in his first year of pro ball in 2008. Dickerson was a roving minor league instructor with the Cubs and worked with Flaherty in short-season Single-A Boise.

"You could tell then he had a good baseball background," Dickerson said. "We got a lot of work done together that year. He was a pleasant player to get fresh. You put in some things with that type of guy and he takes them to heart and he works on them. You can tell years later that he's fundamentally sound. He's kept everything we talked to him about."

Flaherty made great strides last season, batting .280 with a .347 on-base percentage, .478 slugging percentage, 19 homers and 88 RBIs in 132 games between Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa. For the first time in his pro career, he also played the outfield, playing 28 games in left field and 13 in right.

That makes the Orioles' choice even tougher, as does the fact that as a left-handed hitter, he hit .294 against lefties last season in Triple-A — something he said he has concentrated on since his father, a left-handed thrower, would pitch to him as a kid.

"Growing up around him, I took every opportunity I had," Flaherty said. "He taught me pretty much everything I know about baseball."

And now, given the opportunity to make a major league roster, Flaherty just needs to let his baseball speak for itself.

"Coming to a new organization, everything is new to me," Flaherty said. "The biggest thing is just to go out there and control what I can control and leave the rest to everyone else who makes those decisions."