Orioles manager Buck Showalter spent the beginning of Friday’s pregame media session at Tropicana Field lauding Tampa Bay Rays utility man Joey Wendle, asking out loud whether any other player is more worthy of American League Rookie of the Year.
There are other candidates that will likely receive more attention — notably New York Yankees rookies Miguel Andújar and Gleyber Torres, as well as Los Angeles Angels two-way sensation Shohei Ohtani. But Showalter’s point that Wendle might have more value to his team because of his positional flexibility shouldn’t be lost, especially because he’s the kind of player the Orioles have lacked this season.
The Rays are good at acquiring and creating those kinds of players. Wendle, 28, started at second base Friday, one of five different positions he’s played this season. Years ago, the Rays turned Ben Zobrist into a valuable super-utility man, and more recently Daniel Robertson has played at five different spots the past two years, including all four infield positions.
Meanwhile, the final month of the Orioles’ 100-loss season will include auditioning players to gauge their positional flexibility. The club wants to see Jonathan Villar’s flexibility in the middle infield. Breyvic Valera will also see time at second base and shortstop. If utility man Steve Wilkerson returns from a hamstring injury before the regular season ends, he will be tested all over the field, and he will likely be moved around when he goes to the Arizona Fall League.
But the Orioles haven’t been able to duplicate the Rays’ ability to find — or create — impact utility position players. Some in the organization wanted that for Tim Beckham entering this year, but he was needed to man third when the club granted Manny Machado’s wish to play shortstop. And when Machado was traded, Beckham was shifted back to shortstop, where he’s struggled to a .934 fielding percentage.
But the ability to play shortstop well is what makes those super-utility players valuable, especially at a time when teams stack their bullpens with 13 pitchers and don’t have much roster room for players who can do just one thing defensively.
“That utility guy is paramount,” Showalter said. “Sometime they’re regular irregulars, kind of like Wendle. He might play somewhere different every night, but he’s playing somewhere. And if you’ve got that really good guy you can plug in, this guy needs a day, that guy needs a day, you can move him around and he’s got a day. And just move him around and every once in a while, he needs a day. To have those interchangeable parts when you’re in the markets that us and Tampa are in, you’ve got to have it.”
And having those pieces — especially while building for the future — make constructing a roster easier now and in the future. Even as his production waned over the years, Zobrist remained a valuable piece because he could play all over and not hurt his club defensively.
The Orioles currently have nothing comparable to players like Wendle, Robertson or even the older version of Zobrist, who is worth 2.7 wins above replacement this season with the Chicago Cubs at age 37. Wilkerson might be the closest thing because he can play second, third and shortstop, but he is still untested and still has a long way to go before drawing comparisons to a player such as Wendle, who is a 3.5-WAR player, according to Baseball Reference. Before landing on the disabled list, Robertson was a 2.7-win player.
The best position player — based on WAR — on the current Orioles roster regardless of flexibility is Villar at 1.1 wins above replacement.
When using Wendle as an example, it’s interesting to note the Rays didn’t give up much to get him, sending a player to be named later that ended being former Orioles draftee Jonah Heim, who was traded to the Rays for two months of Steve Pearce at the 2016 trade deadline. Heim has yet to play in the majors. Robertson was a third player in a deal that sent Zobrist and Yunel Escobar to the Oakland Athletics before the 2015 season.
Yet, as the Orioles embark on their rebuild, among the 15 players the Orioles acquired in their trade deadline deals, none fit that profile. And that came after the organization already knew the lack of infield depth it has internally. That was clear from the beginning of this year — when non-shortstop like Danny Valencia won the utility position out of camp — and became more evident throughout the season. And there’s no one coming up through the ranks — possibly with the exception of Cadyn Grenier, a competitive-balance pick this year who is still a few years away — who could potentially fit that profile.
So even in implementing their rebuild — and knowing their lack of internal options like Wendle and Robertson bring — they seemed to ignore their need for young, controllable and defensively diverse players in making their flurry of trades for the future.