SARASOTA, Fla. — The way the Orioles' current roster is shaking out, infielder Ryan Flaherty seems assured of starting somewhere in the Opening Day lineup against the Boston Red Sox on March 31.
Just don't tell Flaherty that.
In his last two springs, the unassuming 27-year-old had to scratch and claw his way onto the big league roster, not knowing he'd made the team until the final days of camp. Frankly, he prefers it that way.
"I like the other role better. I like the idea that you are young, you've got to prove yourself," said Flaherty, who hit .224 in 85 games during three stints with the Orioles in 2013. "You are going on the road trips in spring training. I like that."
Flaherty improved his strength over the winter and continues to work on his offensive game. But it's his rock-solid glove and defensive versatility that keeps him employed in the big leagues.
"He is one of those guys, especially for a manager, that you are going to want because he is going to go out there and play solid defense everywhere," Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy said. "He has potential offensively, and I don't think he has reached it yet."
The Orioles selected Flaherty in the Rule 5 draft from the Chicago Cubs before the 2012 season. As a Rule 5 pick he had to stay in with the Orioles all year or be offered back to the Cubs for half the original selection price. And Flaherty stayed, eventually becoming the first player in 17 years to appear in the playoffs the season directly following the Rule 5 draft.
The son of an accomplished collegiate baseball coach in Maine, Flaherty fit in perfectly with the upstart 2012 club that Showalter and executive vice president Dan Duquette built. He became more comfortable with the Orioles last year, and now seems to be somewhat of a fixture in the clubhouse — an evolution from the wide-eyed kid from Maine, who came to Sarasota, Fla., for the first time in 2012.
"Obviously, it is a lot easier seeing familiar faces when you get to camp. Especially compared to two camps ago when you are a Rule 5 pick and you don't know anyone. You don't even know what the Rule 5 pick means," Flaherty said. "It's definitely a lot easier now in that sense. And now I am looking forward to the season."
He has appeared in 162 regular season games in his big league career — the equivalent of a full season — and has played 93 games at second base, 24 at third, 17 in right field, 10 at shortstop and seven each at first base and left field. He's even had to DH a few times.
This year, Flaherty will start at either third base, if Manny Machado, as expected, begins the season on the disabled list, or at second base. He doesn't really care where he ends up, so long as he is playing baseball in the majors.
"I never get too focused on, 'They view me as something.' Wherever they put me that day, wherever they feel I am going to help the team the most, that's where I am going to play," Flaherty said. "I don't look at it as me being an incumbent at one position."
He made last year's team as a utility infielder, but again was thrust into a starting role when starting second baseman Brian Roberts was injured in the season's third game. As comfortable as Flaherty, a collegiate shortstop at Vanderbilt University, looked at second base, he appeared equally uncomfortable at the plate to begin 2013.
He started the season 0-for-17 with nine strikeouts. By May 18, he was hitting just .133 in 90 at-bats when he was sent down to Triple-A Norfolk. After a brief stay there, he was back in the majors and had the best offensive month of his career, hitting .297 with four homers in 22 June games. He just couldn't sustain that pace for the rest of the season. He's always had some power — he has 16 homers in 399 regular season at-bats — but he's also stuck out 105 times as a big leaguer.
"With what we've asked him to do, he's been outstanding. I really enjoy when he is out at second base," Hardy said. "But when you get into a hole (offensively) … it adds pressure. And in this game when you add more pressure on yourself it's so much tougher to perform. Especially when you are a younger guy and you've got to find a way to get out of it."
Flaherty has had a pretty good spring so far with the bat. Due to his presence on the majority of road trips, he is second on the team behind only Steve Pearce in Grapefruit League at-bats with 39. He's hitting .282 with a homer, four doubles, four walks and 10 strikeouts.
"I feel good," he said. "I'm trying some things and trying to have good at-bats."
For the first time as an Oriole, he probably doesn't have to worry about his spring numbers. But when you've grown up on the roster bubble, it's become part of your baseball DNA, said Pearce, who has done a similar shuffle in the outfield.
"It's frigging tough. You don't have the luxury of preparing the way everybody else does. You have to start your workouts before everybody else. You have to come to spring training ready to go," Pearce said. "But it is something I have gone through before and he has gone through before, and he handles it just fine."
Flaherty's attitude has helped set him apart and endear him to Showalter.
"It's always about the sum of the parts of the group and the honor it is to be on the club to start with and then your role," Showalter said.
Ultimately, though, what kind of career Flaherty ends up having will be tied directly to how he hits in the big leagues.
"He's got a pretty good track record as far as the things you look for in their past to think it has a chance to happen. But I can't sit here and project (what he'll do offensively). I just want him to be consistently good defensively. The rest of it, we'll see," Showalter said. "We should know this year what we have in Ryan."