Baltimore Orioles infielder Pat Valaika hopes to break camp on the opening day roster for the Orioles.
Pat Valaika is a new father who traded in his offseason golfing for being a doting dad, a Southern California lifer who loves the beach but doesn’t surf, and was the starting shortstop for a national championship team at UCLA. He’s one of four Valaika brothers who played pro ball, with a brother Chris having made the majors as well.
And despite being a non-roster invitee in a crowded Orioles camp, he’s working out every day with the starters on the infield and could be a darkhorse candidate to hit his way onto the Opening Day roster.
None of that, though, comes through when a player is reduced to a name on the daily transaction wire. And Valaika was reduced to that a lot this winter.
The 27-year-old infielder was placed on waivers four times this offseason and claimed three times — twice by the Orioles. Once they got him back, he was put on waivers one final time and passed through, ending up in the Orioles’ minor leagues and ending that cycle.
From the birth of his daughter, Hudson, to he and his career riding baseball’s roster roller coaster all winter, it’s been an eye-opening winter on a lot of levels for Valaika — and one he’ll hope propels him into contention for a big league job with the Orioles when Grapefruit League games begin Saturday.
“It was kind of like a whirlwind — getting picked up by a team, getting excited for a week later to be told you’re not on the team anymore, then a new team, get excited, same thing,” Valaika said. “It was tough, but it kind of made me understand the business side of this game a little more. We are people. We have feelings. But at the end of the day, this is a business.”
Even as he knew his wife, Lauren, was going to have their daughter in the fall, Valaika could sense there may be some professional changes to his life as well. A ninth-round pick in the 2013 MLB draft by the Colorado Rockies, Valaika made his major league debut in September 2016 and spent the next three seasons in an inconsistent role.
When he was in the majors, it was typically as a bench player; he appeared in 231 major league games and had 433 plate appearances. Just 39 of those games were starts. It still equated to over two years of major league service time, but he’s hit .214 with a .572 OPS at the highest level.
The Orioles are counting that something changed for him in 2019 when he got some consistent at-bats at Triple-A Albuquerque. In the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, Valaika hit .320 with a .952 OPS, 22 home runs, and 26 doubles in 84 games. He’d developed some power as his professional career progressed, with 13 home runs in 2017 for the Rockies, but found another level in 2019.
“With the Rockies, I was a part-time player,” Valaika said. “I didn’t get a lot of at-bats. It was a lot of pinch-hitting at-bats, stuff like that. Whenever I went down to Triple-A, I knew I was going to get four or five at-bats a night. Naturally, just playing always helps. The balls were jumping. … There’s no doubt about it. The home run rate was up. But you’ve still got to hit the ball pretty good.”
Baltimore Orioles Insider Newsletter
Want to be an Orioles Insider? The Sun has you covered. Don't miss any Orioles news, notes and info all baseball season and beyond.
When the season ended, though, Valaika was out of minor league options and had a feeling that a move away from the only team he’d ever known might be happening. The Rockies tried to pass him through waivers in October, but the Orioles claimed him. He learned the news sitting on the couch with Hudson.
He was on a flight to Hawaii for his sister-in-law’s wedding when he was designated for assignment off the roster by the Orioles on Jan. 10, and found out with a slew of messages and alerts when he turned his phone back on, and got claimed by the Arizona Diamondbacks a week later — the last day of the Hawaiian vacation.
Arizona kept Valaika for 11 days, and when he landed back on waivers, the Orioles brought him back. Every year, a few players get sucked into the waiver-claim vortex. For every instance like Hanser Alberto, who ended up back with the Orioles as an everyday player after such an offseason in 2019, there are countless others who don’t have that success.
At the very least Valaika can now rest easy knowing that he’s out of that cycle. At worst, he’ll be infield depth at Triple-A Norfolk who can play all four positions in an organization that’s short on options in that area. His versatility will be an asset in spring training, and give manager Brandon Hyde plenty of ways to get him into games. Spring training will likely be a continuation of the regular at-bats he believes fueled his offensive breakthrough last summer, and even if the best-case scenario at present is to make the major league team and go back to a bench role, he’s embraced that.
Valaika said: “That’s all I’m here for—to play, and prepare myself. I told Hyder and [executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias], all we’re asking for is a chance, you know? It’s just what you do with it. I’m just looking forward to getting going and playing baseball again.”
Around the horn
Hyde said first baseman Chris Davis will make his spring debut in the Orioles’ home opener Sunday. ... Infielder Andrew Velazquez, who was claimed off waivers from the Cleveland Indians this week, will get a few days before he debuts in games after a long layoff while in roster limbo. ... Left-hander John Means is scheduled to start one of the split-squad games on Tuesday, Hyde said.