Sarasota, Fla. — Just more than one week after joining the Orioles on a minor league deal, Danny Valencia has emerged as a top candidate to win the club’s utility man position.
In six games with the Orioles, Valencia has played at first base and third base. But to earn an Opening Day roster spot, he’ll likely to have to show he can play more positions, including ones where he doesn’t have much experience.
Valencia doesn’t fit the traditional utility man role because most of his experience comes at the corner infield and outfield spots, but he appears to be solidly in the mix because none of the Orioles’ other candidates to replace Ryan Flaherty as the team’s utility man — a group that includes Engelb Vielma, Luis Sardiñas and Rubén Tejada — have separated themselves from the competition
Valencia has evolved since his previous time in Baltimore in 2013, when he was mainly used as a platoon designated hitter against left-handed pitching, coming off consecutive seasons in which he played in 130 games.
The Orioles plan to give Valencia some starts in the outfield in the final two weeks of the exhibition season, and Valencia could even play some second base or shortstop before the team is done in Florida so the club can see how he handles himself there.
Valencia has never played shortstop at the major league level and made just three starts at second base — all of them in 2014 with the Kansas City Royals — but Orioles manager Buck Showalter is never unwilling to experiment
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And whenever conventionality is preached, Showalter mentions that the Orioles never knew that Steve Pearce could play second base until they tested him there in 2014. Pearce made 13 starts there that season with Jonathan Schoop out, held his own and has started 14 games there since.
Managing shortstop is a greater challenge because that position quarterbacks the infield, but none of the three utility candidates have earned Showalter’s trust yet at shortstop, so he’s likely willing to give Valencia a look there.
But while most utility men must show the ability to play short, the Orioles already have some flexibility there in case starter Manny Machado misses time. Third baseman Tim Beckham could easily shift back to short, leaving Valencia to play a more natural position at third. Schoop also offers an alternative at shortstop.
When Valencia signed a minor league deal with the Orioles on Aug. 3, he did so with the knowledge that he wouldn’t accept a minor league assignment. He was playing to make the Orioles’ big league roster or not at all.
Since starting out 4-for-9 with four extra-base hits (three doubles and homer) in his first three games, Valencia has cooled at the plate, going hitless in his past nine at-bats after an 0-for-3 day Monday afternoon in the Orioles’ 8-5 road win over the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Still, the Orioles know what he can provide, and he’s already shown the club enough to emerge from roster dark horse to legitimate contender.