At the beginning of this month in Kansas City, the Orioles coaching staff brought all the team’s infielders — Tim Beckham, Jonathan Villar, Renato Núñez, Breyvic Valera, and Jace Peterson — into manager Buck Showalter’s office and explained how September would go for them.
Perhaps no subset of the Orioles roster has been more unsettled on the position side than the infielders since the midseason trades of Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop and the offseason departures of J.J. Hardy and Ryan Flaherty. The past month has been an attempt to sort that out now and in the future — and hasn’t yielded the types of answers that will engender much goodwill toward 2019.
“There’s some looks that we’re not going to get that I would have liked to have gotten — Valera in the outfield,” Showalter said. “I see their history. I’ve got a log of where they’ve played their whole career, the most, when it happened. I’d really like to see Villar and Valera play some third base, but I really want to get as many reps as we can with Renato. I’d love to play [them all], but I’m not going to be able to do it.”
Núñez, 24, has the most stable workload of anyone involved, starting 13 of their first 15 September games at third base and 47 of the first 53 games since he was added from Triple-A Norfolk after the Machado trade. Peterson, 28, has the other two starts at third this month
The addition of Valera, 26, this month as the team’s lone Sept. 1 call-up meant Villar, who spent most of August playing at second base after the Orioles acquired him July 31 from the Milwaukee Brewers, began to get more time at shortstop. Villar, 27, entered Tuesday as the only Oriole to start every game since rosters expanded, with six starts at shortstop to Beckham’s eight and Valera’s one.
Valera had been at second base in each of Villar’s six starts at shortstop, with Beckham serving as the designated hitter in one of those. Monday would have been another day with that alignment before the Orioles had to adjust twice to accommodate Adam Jones moving to designated hitter and Chris Davis joining the lineup after initially being on the bench.
If it seems complicated, it’s because it is — and a lot of the shuffling seems to be at the expense of Beckham, who a year ago was seen as bright spot in the Orioles future after he was acquired from the Tampa Bay Rays at the deadline and hit the cover off the ball that August. He cooled in September, then ceded shortstop to Machado this offseason, taking over third base.
Beckham, 28, moved back to shortstop full-time when Machado was dealt, but went into the week having sat five times this month as the team looks at the new players added since he was. Beckham is trying to take it in stride.
“I just show up to the park,” Beckham said. “I’m just trying to control what I can control. If I’m in the lineup, I can control that. Just continue to put the work in every day, day in and day out. If I’m in there, I’m expected to produce. If I’m not in there, I come in, get my work in and be a good teammate.”
Despite the fluid role, Beckham is having one of his best statistical months of the season — a year when he missed two months with a core muscle injury that required groin surgery. Even without a hit in three of four games entering Tuesday, he’s batting .278 with a .686 OPS in September, and Beckham isn’t the only one in that mix looking to make an impression as the season winds down.
Villar batted .305 with an .858 OPS and a team-high four home runs through 15 games this month, while Valera batted .350 with a .767 OPS in September. Add in Núñez (.277 with a .738 OPS in September), and the Orioles infielders have been their best overall performers at the plate this month.
Peterson will likely stay in the mix in the final two weeks of the season, and rookie Steve Wilkerson will be available this week after rehabilitating a hamstring injury over the past few weeks. And if there aren’t enough spots to play them all with an expanded roster, there’s certainly not going to be come April next year. That increases the importance of the impressions made by the likes of Villar and Beckham, who are due hefty arbitration raises, plus the rookies trying to establish themselves.
“If I’m in the conversation, I’m in the conversation,” Beckham said. “I’m not going to go out there and save the season, but I’m going to go out and do what I can, not waste any at-bats, see the ball and put together some quality at-bats. For myself, I want to end the season on a good note. Anytime you get a chance to go out there, you want to produce. No one wants to go out there and go 0-for-4. No one wants to go out there and go 0-for-3 with a walk. You want to play well.”