At Arizona Fall League, Orioles infielder Steve Wilkerson has chance to present himself as a prospect

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Playing alongside the big-name prospects at Double-A Bowie this year means Orioles infield prospect Steve Wilkerson will be used to the lack of fanfare about his assignment to the Arizona Fall League.

Two of the seven players he's heading west with — left-hander Tanner Scott and outfielder Anthony Santander — ended the year in the majors, while two others — third baseman Ryan Mountcastle and left-hander Keegan Akin — were part of the team's preseason top prospect lists.

Yet Wilkerson, the 25-year-old infielder who broke out in 2016, has just as good a chance of beginning next season in the majors as any of them. And he's heading west understanding that.

"I have a pretty good idea, I think, of what to expect out there," Wilkerson said at the end of the Bowie season. "The talent level is second-to-none, and the eyes you get to play in front of are some of the top dogs. That's a big deal, and I'm looking forward to it."

For Wilkerson, who played himself onto the major league radar as a utility player this year and is eligible for the Rule 5 draft this offseason, the assignment is particularly important. The team's hope for him will be that he can continue his breakout 2017 season, which saw him hit .305/.375/.423 with eight home runs and 23 doubles between High-A Frederick and Bowie. The 2014 eighth-round pick was coming off a down season at Frederick, but turned it around this year.

"Steve is so versatile," Bowie manager Gary Kendall said. "He brings a lot of things to the table. He's a good runner, and I think going out to the Fall League is going to be really good for him. He's going to help the manager as a guy who can play multiple positions, but [get] the at-bats that maybe he was missing the later part of this season. Getting Ryan Mountcastle kind of took him off the field at third base. But he's an exciting player. He makes plays. He can get a bunt down. He's a good runner. He just brings so much to the table, and I think that his future looks really good."

The sporadic playing time available to Wilkerson down the stretch was part of why he's being sent for the extra games in Arizona. He played all four infield positions and right field over the course of the season, but when Mountcastle was promoted to Bowie and moved to third base at the end of the season and infielder Ryan Flaherty spent three weeks rehabbing at Bowie, innings dried up for Wilkerson.

He saw, however, that not having a set position can be better than the alternative, and he credits the Orioles for coaxing that out of him.

"It's a thing they've brought out of me more so than anything else," he said. "I knew I always had the ability to jump around and play different positions, but I never really had the chance to do it. This year, down in Frederick, I got the chance to play a little third base, play a little first, play a little short. I made my debut in the outfield as well. So it was a really good opportunity to be able to jump around and play different positions this year, and it's been fun. It keeps things fresh and presents new challenges."

The audiences full of decision-makers and rosters full of top competitors will give Wilkerson a chance to show he can handle that on a bigger stage. His value to the Orioles next year might be higher than anyone else's because of Flaherty's pending free agency and the lack of infield options in the system. That means that depending on the looks Wilkerson gives this month, he could be added to the 40-man roster to ensure he's still in the system next spring, or the Orioles could risk it and leave him exposed to the Rule 5 draft. That's an office-level decision, though, and on the field, Kendall believes there's clear tasks for Wilkerson to reach the next level.

"There's things that he needs to do in his development — maintain his strength, for one, and just kind of work on his craft," Kendall said. "Know what kind of player he is. He's a guy that bunts very well, I'd like to see him incorporate that some into his offense more when given the opportunity, and a guy that hits line drives. I'd like to see him keep that ball out of the air a lot and hit more level swing and create backspin and hit some line drives. But [director of player development Brian Graham], when he sent him here, told us what kind of player he was. We knew him a little bit from spring training. We wouldn't be [in the playoffs] without him."

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