In these troubled times, we know who essential workers are. Doctors, nurses and other key hospital personnel. Police officers and firefighters. They’re also workers in food stores, pharmacies, gas stations, auto repair shops and hardware stores.
Last season, the Orioles had a clear most valuable player, Trey Mancini. They also had some strong performers — Hanser Alberto, John Means and Jonathan Villar.
And, they had their own essential worker, Stevie Wilkerson.
In normal times, hospital workers, police officers and firefighters are considered essential, but people who work in food stores aren’t.
These are anything but normal times for our country, and last year wasn’t a normal season for the Orioles.
Had the Orioles not been in the first full season of a rebuild in 2019, Wilkerson would not have been so essential, but he was.
Cedric Mullins had an awful few weeks of the season, and the Orioles sent him to Triple-A Norfolk, leaving center field vacant. In stepped Wilkerson, who had been removed from the 40-man roster shortly before the season began, replacing Mullins on the 25-man.
Wilkerson, who was considered a utility infielder before April 2019, suddenly was an outfielder.
Because the Orioles had few options other than Joey Rickard, the switch-hitting Wilkerson got a shot in center field.
The Orioles hoped that Mullins would succeed in center field, but he couldn’t hit major league pitching. Austin Hays, who had shown well in spring training, was sent down and had a second consecutive season marred by injuries.
So, an opportunity existed for Wilkerson, whose outgoing and upbeat personality makes him popular in the clubhouse.
Wilkerson ended up starting 58 games in center, more than anyone else. He played 15 games in left and seven in right. He also started six games at second base.
In 2018, Wilkerson started eight games at second and four at third and played two innings at shortstop.
Last season, the Orioles needed 13 pitchers for much of the season, leaving only 12 position players. One of the three extras was always a backup catcher, and versatility was key.
Because Wilkerson made himself into an outfielder, he made himself essential.
Alberto, Villar, Richie Martin and Rio Ruiz never suffered a serious injury, although Ruiz went to the minors briefly in late July and early August and was replaced on the roster by Jace Peterson, another versatile player.
Wilkerson ended up hitting .225 with a .286 on-base percentage and a .669 OPS.
His true value to the Orioles was exposed at a time when few fans were watching. Shortly after 4 A.M. Eastern time on July 26, Wilkerson moved from center field to the mound to pitch the 16th inning of a game in Anaheim, California against the Los Angeles Angels.
Wilkerson retired the Angels in order to record a save, the first ever by a position player.
In two earlier stints, manager Brandon Hyde called on Wilkerson to eat up final innings in lopsided losses, but this was different. Throwing ultra-slow pitches, Wilkerson got the save and his 15 minutes of fame.
He concluded the season making a wondrous catch while playing right field at Fenway Park. But on January 31, the Orioles again took Wilkerson off the roster when they claimed right-handed pitcher Travis Lakins on waivers from the Chicago Cubs.
Since Wilkerson had been outrighted the year before, he could have declared for free agency. Instead, he chose to stay with the Orioles and join a crowded fray for a utility spot or two.
“There’s a lot of guys in camp that have versatility, that have multi-faceted games,” Wilkerson said on March 12, shortly before spring training was ended.
“Since the beginning of camp, our staff has been preaching that there’s a lot of opportunity here, to fight till the end of camp. They have a lot of options and there’s a little bit of time left here and a lot of decisions to be made.”
Currently, the Orioles have Andrew Velazquez, who was acquired on waivers from Cleveland on the 40-man roster, and a host of non-roster contenders — Dilson Herrera, Jose Rondon, Richard Urena and Pat Valaika, who are primarily infielders.
Wilkerson could fit in the infield mix or could jockey with another non-roster player, Mason Williams, for an outfield spot.
“I definitely have a good understanding of the dynamic of this team,” Wilkerson said. “I’ve been in the organization for quite a while and, thankfully, I got to get some good experience up at the highest level last year, so I don’t know if those are things that set me apart, at least some things that I have on my side.”
In 11 games this spring, Wilkerson was hitting .250 (6-for-24) with two doubles and a home run.
“I think it comes down to performance,” Wilkerson said. “It’s a performance-based industry and whoever gets the job down is going to be the person that gets the nod.”
When the Orioles resume, we’ll see if Wilkerson is regarded as essential for 2020.