When Steve Wilkerson went to the Arizona Fall League this time last year, he was coming off a breakout year at Double-A Bowie and trying to play himself into the major league roster conversation on a team without any standout candidates to fill the utility role he'd been groomed for.
Wilkerson never really got off the ground after a 50-game suspension in the offseason for violating the minor league drug policy with a positive test for an amphetamine took him out of the spring training mix. And once he made it to the majors, oblique and hamstring injuries cut his time with the Orioles short.
So after a year full of what he called "ups and downs," Wilkerson returns to what's often referred to as prospect finishing school heading to a familiar place in much different circumstances when the AFL opens Tuesday.
"It was definitely a little bit different this year, but every time I step on the field is important and I'm looking forward to going out to Arizona and playing again and making up some of the time I missed this year," Wilkerson said. "It's a good opportunity."
On a base level, making up for the time away with the suspension is what Wilkerson most needs. After serving his suspension, the 26-year-old played three weeks with Triple-A Norfolk before being summoned for his major league debut. He was up for two short stints before suffering an oblique injury, and played one game on his rehabilitation assignment at Norfolk before a hamstring injury put him back on the sideline.
He returned for the final two weeks with the Orioles, but totaled only 43 games and 145 at-bats between the majors and minors. He hit .270 with four home runs in 20 games at Norfolk, and held his own in his first major league stint, but a hitless final series against the Houston Astros dropped him to .174 in the big leagues.
"As you can imagine, it's difficult when you're not able to be out on the field and playing," Wilkerson said. "But I wouldn't say one injury was more upsetting than the other. The first one was my oblique. That was extremely frustrating because it was right as I was starting to get my feet wet up here, and starting to get comfortable and confident. To be shut down like that and headed back to Florida was very difficult, but I've tried to be resilient through it all and finish here on a high note."
Last year in the AFL, Wilkerson was coming off a year in which he played second base, third base, first base and right field between Bowie and High-A Frederick. He got experience all over the diamond in Arizona, too, and will play this year under the tutelage of Orioles infield instructor Dave Anderson, who is managing the Glendale club.
"I'm looking forward to playing with Dave Anderson out there, who I've been in the organization with for a few years now," Wilkerson said. "It's a good opportunity to play for him and move around position-wise. I'm looking forward to getting out there."
Wilkerson will play for Glendale alongside six other Orioles: catcher Martin Cervenka, outfielder Ryan McKenna and pitchers Chris Lee, Tyler Erwin, Jay Flaa and Tanner Chleborad.
McKenna was chosen as a replacement for outfielder Austin Hays, who like Wilkerson was going to make up for time lost to injury but required ankle surgery in September.