Boston — When the 2019 Orioles are remembered fondly, which seems difficult to envision after their 54-108 campaign ended Sunday, one of the principals of those warm memories will be Stevie Wilkerson.
It wasn’t like he was the most significant player on the team. His buddy Trey Mancini was Most Valuable Oriole. His natural position of second base was occupied primarily by 162-gamer Jonathan Villar. Hanser Alberto’s breakout year means he’s not even the best story of a player who was cut by the Orioles in spring training.
But on a team that was involved in its fair share of “What am I watching?” moments, one man was involved in them more than anyone else, and that’s Dr. Poo Poo himself, Wilkerson.
His 2019 was a fully developed product of this rebuild, not in the sense that he’s a product of the farm system contributing in the majors, but because most of what he did was a result of the team’s triage-style management of the major league roster. They were simply trying to get everyone to the next day.
Wilkerson’s save in the 16th inning on July 25 against the Los Angeles Angels was the first by a position player in major league history. On a team that entered the year with Cedric Mullins as its unquestioned center fielder of the present and future, with Austin Hays and Ryan McKenna knocking on the door, he played more games in center field than any other Oriole despite never having played the position in his life.
He hit 10 home runs, made a game-saving catch in Sunday’s finale that might have been the best in the majors all season, then allowed Mookie Betts to score from first on a single to end the game and the Orioles’ season.
A lot has been asked of him, and it’s only being asked because he’s the type of player with the physical abilities to pull it off, the belief that he’ll succeed and the uncanny ability to be the answer to that day’s question.
“Well, I never played center field in my life before this season and I think I played the most games in center field on this team,” Wilkerson said. “And I’ve never pitched before in my life and I got the first save in the history of the league. And then I think I tried to rob about 50 homers on the year and came up short on all of them until this one, so it’s been a roller coaster year and I’m looking forward to just decompressing and reflecting on it here in a couple days.”
“I just think he loves to play,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “He plays like he’s in the backyard playing Wiffle Ball. That kind of typifies his year a little bit.”
It typifies the Orioles’ year, too, in less-than-ideal ways. Most of the new front office’s emphasis was on the minor league and scouting infrastructures, leaving the major league team to make it work with whatever they had.
Wilkerson was in spring training with the Orioles as a utility infielder, but was outrighted off the roster midway through and began in Triple-A. It wasn’t like he got much outfield time there, with DJ Stewart and Anthony Santander playing the corners, but he was ultimately the person summoned when Mullins was sent down on April 22. Two weeks later, he was the everyday center fielder and more than holding his own. By the time he got his save in late July, he was playing a part-time role in center field with Keon Broxton and Anthony Santander, but Wilkerson rolled on.
Even this weekend, with the Orioles carrying six true outfielders but Santander and Mason Williams not available, Wilkerson was handed the unenviable task of patrolling Fenway Park’s massive right field. Outside of the leaping catch, it was a tough day.
But one last time, he was a solution to a problem. The Orioles couldn’t have envisioned Mullins’ collapse and the fact that first base coach Arnie Beyeler had to fashion center fielders out of players who had never done it. They might have been able to envision a game that went 16 innings in which they ran out of pitchers.
No amount of foresight could have seen Stevie Wilkerson as the solution to so many of their problems, though. Most of the time, it was pretty fun to watch.
What’s to come?
Baltimore Orioles Insider
A blissful heap of nothing to start, but it will be a busy offseason for the Orioles’ front office. Hyde said that he and Elias hadn’t really talked coaching staff changes yet, but that will be among the first items on the agenda if they’re going to happen.
Elias and the front office staff have a lot of hiring to do on the scouting and player development sides, and there’s also the usual offseason business of preparing for the Rule 5 draft and trying to fill out the fringes of a roster that’s set to experience a lot of turnover. Just don’t circle the start of free agency on any calendars and expect the Orioles to be involved. They will not be.
What was good?
Villar didn’t blow anyone away statistically this year, but it’s really a testament to him that he was one of five players to play 162 games this season. Three of the other four — Jorge Soler and Whit Merrifield of the Kansas City Royals and Starlin Castro of the Miami Marlins — earned their perfect participation awards on similarly bad teams, but there’s something to be said about being able to play the way he did and put together a four wins-above-replacement season.
Considering how Villar typically plays with abandon and is aggressive on the bases, the likelihood of getting dinged up and having to miss a day with that style is high. He’s also, conservatively, had a trainer visit after fouling a ball off himself about once a series.
But he was in the lineup every day on a team that lost 108 games, never asked out and had the best season of his career while doing it.
Alberto’s run-scoring single ensured his last game of 2019 was a productive one, but that chase for the batting title he looked to be mounting earlier this month never really came to fruition. Alberto peaked with a five-hit game in Kansas City on Aug. 30 that brought his average to .324, but went 22-for-97 (.227) the rest of the way to bring him to the .305 mark he ended with on Sunday.
Alberto got as close to becoming a cult figure as one can on a team like the Orioles, and his offseason transience made his rise to an everyday role for Hyde a rare but constant source of joy around the team this year. It might not be enough to keep him here long-term, and the end of the season might not have gone the way he wanted, but Alberto’s ability to hit left-handers will keep him in the big leagues for as long as he wants.