When the 2019 season began, the Orioles thought Cedric Mullins would be their centerfielder. After a horrid start when Mullins went 6-for-64 (.094), he was back in the minor leagues, and the Orioles searched for a new centerfielder.
They tried Joey Rickard, but he wasn’t the answer. Nor was Keon Broxton.
For most of the season, the Orioles’ centerfielder was none other than Stevie Wilkerson, who had never played the position professionally before this season.
In spring training, the Orioles thought Mullins, and perhaps later on in the season, Austin Hays, with perhaps some help from Rickard could take care of center.
Austin Hays was the other option the Orioles considered in spring training, but he had another injury-challenged season after not making the Orioles’ Opening Day roster. But when Hays came up in September for the final three weeks of the season, he sparkled offensively and defensively, perhaps securing the position going into next year.
Wilkerson started 58 games in center, 15 in left and 7 in right.
Former manager Buck Showalter had projected Wilkerson as the next Ryan Flaherty, a switch-hitting utility man who could play the infield and the outfield.
But first-year manager Brandon Hyde had an infield of Hanser Alberto, Richie Martin, Rio Ruiz and Jonathan Villar, who played steadily throughout the season. (Ruiz was sent to the minors briefly to make room for Jace Peterson.)
There really wasn’t a need for Wilkerson to play the infield, though he did get six starts at second.
Wilkerson struggled in the outfield, and though he committed only two errors in 184 chances, the defensive metrics weren’t kind to him.
BaseballReference.com’s WAR (wins above replacement) graded him with a -.8, almost all of it coming on defense. Offensively, he was 0.0, an average player.
Wilkerson hit .226 with an on-base percentage of .286. His OPS was .669, lower than any Oriole regular except for Chris Davis’ .601 and Richie Martin’s .581. He hit 10 home runs and drove in 35 runs.
Because the Orioles went with 13 pitchers for most of the season, Wilkerson ended up being invaluable to Hyde.
The 13 pitchers meant there were just 12 position players. One of them was a backup catcher, leaving just two subs.
Because Wilkerson could play all the infield and outfield positions, he became an important member of the 2019 team. Had the pitching been better, the Orioles could have gotten by with 12 pitchers, as was their original plan.
With four extra position players, the Orioles could have carried a backup outfielder or another infielder, lessening the value of a utility player. Next season, teams will carry 26 players, instead of 25, and will be limited to 13 pitchers, ensuring at least four extra batters.
Instead of Wilkerson’s maneuverability, fans probably will remember his 2019 season for his pitching and his acrobatic catch in the final game of the season on September 29.
By the time Hyde got around to using Wilkerson in the bullpen, he had already established himself in center field.
On July 12, in the first game after the All-Star break, with a doubleheader looming the next day, Wilkerson pitched a perfect ninth inning against Tampa Bay in a 16-4 loss.
Eight days later, he allowed a run in two innings to Boston in a 17-6 defeat.
A highlight in this lost season came on July 25 when Wilkerson became the first position player to record a save in the team’s 10-8 win over the Los Angeles Angels.
After Tanner Scott blew a three-run lead in the 15th, the Orioles scored two runs in the top of the 16th, and Wilkerson, who had been playing center, moved in to pitch. He retired all three Angels hitters in the 16th, and history was made at 4:27 A.M. Eastern Time.
Wilkerson’s success on the mound was built on his deception. He threw below the hitting speed and enjoyed his notoriety.
Orioles players wore “Let Stevie pitch” shirts, and Hyde allowed him to record the final four outs in a 23-2 drubbing by Houston on August 10. That one didn’t go as well. Wilkerson allowed three runs in recording those four outs.
On the season’s final day, with Anthony Santander unavailable, Wilkerson made a tremendous catch on Boston’s Jackie Bradley Jr., falling into the right-field stands for a moment.
The catch saved the game for a time, but Wilkerson, whose error and misplaying a ball in the sun had cost the Orioles two runs in the third, made a mental error in the ninth that contributed to the game-winning run by Mookie Betts.
Next season, the Orioles could go with an outfield of Santander in left, Hays in center and perhaps Trey Mancini in right — with Mullins, Dwight Smith Jr., DJ Stewart and Mason Williams possibly competing for a job as extra outfielders.
Wilkerson’s personality and adaptability made him a popular player in the clubhouse and among the media. Clearly, Hyde enjoyed having him around.
Maybe there won’t be a place on the 2020 Orioles for Wilkerson. Hyde hopes that he won’t need position players to pitch as often as he did in 2019. Perhaps some of the natural outfielders are able to break through, lessening the need for Wilkerson.
The guess here is that he is back with the Orioles in spring training, trying to show that his versatility will help the team as the rebuild continues.
Remembering Andy Etchebarren: Andy Etchebarren, who played 12 seasons with the Orioles, died Saturday at 76.
Etchebarren played for the first six Orioles postseason teams, and was named an American League All-Star catcher in 1966 and 1967.
He made his major league debut in 1962, and became the team’s regular catcher in its first World Series season, when they swept the Los Angeles Dodgers in four games in 1966.
Etchebarren concluded his 15-season career with the California Angels and Milwaukee Brewers.
He was manager Davey Johnson’s bench coach in 1996 and 1997 and managed Oriole affiliates in Aberdeen, Bluefield, Bowie, Frederick and Rochester. He also managed the independent York Revolution.