Four Orioles played more than 50 games in the 60-game 2020 season. Surprisingly, Pat Valaika was one of them. Hanser Alberto and Rio Ruiz tied for the club lead with 54. Valaika and Renato Núñez each played 52.
Valaika started games at five positions, all four infield spots and left field. He also played an inning in right field.
Every club needs a player as versatile as Valaika. It’s just that the Orioles never imagined he’d play as often as he did. Since José Iglesias was hampered by quad and wrist injuries, Valaika started 15 games at shortstop, his most at any position.
Valaika started eight times at first and second, four times at third and three in left.
As a second baseman, Valaika was at his best at bat, hitting .500 (15-for-30).
In recent years, the Orioles have had utility players in the lineup more often than expected.
From 2012-2017, Ryan Flaherty, who was acquired in the Rule 5 draft, started games at every position but catcher and center field. He even pitched an inning.
Flaherty, now a coach for the San Diego Padres, appeared in a career high 102 games in 2014, the year that Manny Machado and J.J. Hardy missed significant time because of injuries.
In 2018 and for part of 2019, the Orioles’ Swiss Army knife was Jace Peterson, who played second, third and the corner outfield spots. He started one game at short and also pitched an inning.
Last year’s everywhere man was Stevie Wilkerson, an infielder who answered the call when the Orioles needed a centerfielder. Wilkerson ended up starting 58 games in center, more than anyone else on the club even though he hadn’t played the outfield professionally before 2019.
Wilkerson became something of a folk hero when he appeared in four games as a pitcher and became an unlikely hero on July 25, 2019 when he pitched the final inning of a 16-inning Orioles win at the Los Angeles Angels, earning the first save by a position player.
This year, Wilkerson was on the verge of making the team as a minor league invitee when he broke his left ring finger attempting to make a catch in the Orioles’ first exhibition game in July. The injury ended his season and, when the team needed roster space on its 60-man player pool, Wilkerson was released, although he could return next February as a non-roster invitee.
Valaika ended the season batting .277 with eight home runs and 16 RBIs and a .791 OPS.
Under normal circumstances he’d be brought back, but Valaika, who played parts of the previous four seasons for the Colorado Rockies is eligible for arbitration for the first time. Money will be tight, and Valaika could feel the pinch.
If rosters are at 26 instead of 28, a multi-tasker like Valaika will be valuable. The Orioles would be limited to 13 pitchers and, with at least one of the four reserve spots going to a backup catcher, those who can play multiple positions will be prized.
Valaika could compete with Wilkerson, if he returns. Richie Martin, who missed this season because of a broken wrist, could also be in the competition as could Ramón Urias, who impressed with his versatility in the last week of the season, assuming he’s kept on the 40-man roster.
The Orioles will look for infielders to enter the competition, but with an abundance of candidates for the outfield, first base and designated hitter, roster space will be tight.
Valaika wouldn’t have played as much if Iglesias had been healthy, but to paraphrase former manager Buck Showalter, if you let Valaika go, you’ll spend all season trying to find a player just like him.
Third base isn’t Valaika’s best position, although the Orioles would like some competition for Ruiz at third. Rylan Bannon, who was obtained from the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Manny Machado trade in July 2018, could have a chance to make the team next year.
Bannon played second and third base for Double-A Bowie in 2019. When he was promoted to Triple-A Norfolk, he played 20 games at third. He was a late addition to the 60-man player pool and got some face time at the Bowie alternate site, and is in Sarasota for the fall Instructional League.