SARASOTA, FLA. — Even as his rookie year was cut short by an unfortunate thumb injury in July, Orioles outfielder Joey Rickard packed three different glimpses of what he could become into five months of baseball.
Throughout spring training and deep into April, he was a revelation and fan favorite on every level. But then he cooled and by the end of May lost his everyday job to Hyun Soo Kim. The third act was that of a usable platoon player, one who could hit left-handed pitching and defend well.
Taken as a sum, it all screams fourth outfielder — a player who can give a spark for a week or two as an everyday player, provided it's not for too long, but spends the rest of the season starting a few times a week and otherwise coming off the bench.
But as he enters his second full season, it's still too early to box Rickard in as any one thing. During a spring training in which he's competing in a messy spare-outfielder situation, he won't limit what he can provide.
"You don't want to ever sell yourself short," Rickard said. "I think I can play this game and eventually be there [every day], but whatever this team calls for, whatever is needed, I'll be ready."
Whether he'd be ready for spring to begin with was one of the team's principal concerns this offseason. Rickard tore a thumb ligament July 20 in New York, and try as the Orioles did to get him back for the stretch run, it didn't heal in time and the team suffered for it.
After Rickard batted .350 through 14 games last season, his average plummeted when he hit .200 from that point until his role finally changed. Even though he couldn't sustain the type of production that initially made him beloved in Baltimore, there was still value to having Rickard around.
After a miserable series for the club in Houston in late May, Adam Jones moved into the leadoff spot, Kim became the primary left fielder, and Rickard became a player who started against left-handed pitching and came off the bench to use his speed and defense.
From that point on, Rickard's performance leveled off. He hit .299 from the time of that major switch until he injured his hand, and the team struggled to replace him with Steve Pearce, Nolan Reimold and Drew Stubbs as right-handed-hitting platoon outfielders for the final two months of the season.
Even so, manager Buck Showalter somewhat surprisingly said at the winter meetings in December that how Rickard will respond in his second season — without the Rule 5 restrictions that keep him in the majors all year, and with more expectations — isn't a sure thing. This was the same manager that who constantly lamented Rickard's absence down the stretch — from his grinding at-bats to his speed and ability to hold his own at any outfield spot.
But so far this spring, Showalter said he hasn't seen anything to indicate Rickard would change from the player as he saw last spring.
"Physically, he's fine, knock on wood," Showalter said. "He's kind of picked up where he left off last spring. … Joey led us last year with 76 [plate appearances in spring training], so he looks very much like he did last year — a guy that we were excited to add."
Defensively, the club hopes a year of familiarity with major league ballparks will improve his outfield play. Offensively, Rickard knows all he can do is try to put together the patient at-bats that the Orioles often lack.
For instance, in his first at-bat Monday against the Detroit Tigers in Lakeland, Fla., pitcher Mike Pelfrey got ahead 0-2 on Rickard and tried to sneak a fastball past him on the outside corner. It just missed, but Rickard laid off and worked the count full before eventually popping out.
That at-bat didn't prove productive, but Showalter values those types of plate appearances. It wasn't a one-time thing, either. Rickard entered Thursday's day off batting .333/.583/.533 this spring, and his eight walks are the most of anyone in the major leagues so far.
Rickard might be in a battle for a spot on the Opening Day roster with nonroster outfielders Craig Gentry and Chris Dickerson. But there are enough glimpses to allow for the idea that he could be bound for much more.
"I think any time you get a fresh start, it's a positive," Rickard said. "I'm seeing the ball well right now — that was a closer pitch [from Pelfrey] than I thought it was — it kind of ran back a little more. But that's always been a part of my game, and when I'm relaxed and feeling good, I'm able to lay off those pitches."