Pat Valaika spent baseball’s shutdown somewhat stuck in the garage of his California home, hitting off a tee while following the state’s strong quarantine rules amid the coronavirus pandemic.
But since arriving in Baltimore for the Orioles’ preseason training camp, he’s been able to move around plenty, one of a collection of players whose versatility is being put on display. Valaika, fellow newcomer Andrew Velazquez and Stevie Wilkerson, all capable of playing on the infield and in the outfield, have provided manager Brandon Hyde with the opportunity to deploy numerous defensive combinations through the first two weeks of camp, sometimes changing from inning to inning in intrasquad games.
“Those three guys play so many positions that it’s nice for us,” Hyde said. “You’re gonna need that. We’re gonna need that in this type of year, for sure. Any year, but this is a unique one.”
The season, shortened to 60 games because of the pandemic, will begin in a week with every team having a 30-man roster, potentially allowing all three utility players to make the Orioles’ roster when normally there might only be space for one. Richie Martin’s broken right wrist helps their case, given Baltimore’s lack of shortstop depth beyond José Iglesias.
Wilkerson, Velazquez and Valaika’s ability to play outfield could prove especially beneficial. Following the colon cancer diagnosis for star Trey Mancini and the absences of Anthony Santander and Dwight Smith Jr. — Santander revealed Wednesday he had tested positive for the virus — the Orioles began camp with only two true outfielders, Austin Hays and DJ Stewart, in their player pool.
Wilkerson, a second baseman by trade, played in all three outfield spots in 2019, leading the club in games as a center fielder — a position he hadn’t played in his minor league career until two days before his first promotion last year. He played shortstop and third base for the Orioles in 2018 and has gotten work at short during camp.
He said he’s had “a fairly even split” in time between the infield and outfield, often beginning defensive drills in one area and finishing at the other.
“The versatility this year is definitely important, so I’ve been trying to get my reps in at just about every spot every day,” Wilkerson said Thursday. “It’s a tough sport. It don’t matter what position you’re playing. There’s challenges at every spot. I think once you’re acclimated to one, it takes a little bit of an adjustment period to get your legs underneath you to play the other. But I feel pretty right now in the sense of I don’t feel like an outfielder, I don’t feel like an infielder. I just feel like a baseball player.”
Velazquez, acquired via a waiver claim from the Cleveland Indians this offseason, is a more natural shortstop. He has played a similar number of games at second and in center in his career, and Hyde expressed confidence in his ability to play both of those positions, as well.
Valaika has the least outfield experience of the trio, having played only 16 innings on the grass in his professional career. But Hyde noted that Valaika is continually getting reps in the outfield during live batting practice sessions in addition to his work around the infield.
“I take pride in being able to kind of get plugged in at multiple spots,” Valaika said. “My objective is just to try to find a way onto the field somehow, a way into the lineup. If that’s in the infield, if it’s in the outfield, DH, I’m just trying to make an impact in that lineup.”
In terms of hitting, Valaika carries the most major league success, slugging .533 while playing five positions across 110 games with the Colorado Rockies in 2017. But after hitting below .200 the past two years, the Rockies removed him from their 40-man roster this offseason. The Orioles claimed him on waivers, lost him on waivers to the Arizona Diamondbacks, got him back via another waiver claim, then removed him from the 40-man roster but retained him in the organization. He received invites to both the original spring training and this summer’s camp.
“I just think the more time you spend in the big leagues and the more situations you’re put in, you can learn from, and that’s what I’ve really been trying to do is just learn from every situation,” Valaika said. “I think when I first came up, I was a very aggressive hitter and it worked out for a while, but the league adjusted to me, so I need to adjust back. I’ve been working on being a little more selective and making sure that I swing at a pitch that I want to swing at.”
Of the three, only Velazquez is on the 40-man roster, meaning Valaika or Wilkerson would need to be added to make the Opening Day roster. For that reason, it could prove to be a roster squeeze come next week.
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“I think we have a nice competition between guys that can play multiple positions,” Hyde said. “We’re looking for the versatility. All three of those guys are playing well right now. As many guys as we can have that can play as many positions is for the better for us.”