It was early on Sunday morning, and it didn’t matter to Stevie Wilkerson that he’d lost an hour of sleep because of Daylight Saving Time. He was ready to go.
Wilkerson is playing first base for the Orioles on Sunday against the Detroit Tigers in Lakeland, Florida. He’s trying to convince the team that he needs to be on it. In the regular season, Wilkerson has played every position but catcher and first.
Like most of his teammates — who are hitting a collective .202, by far the worst in the majors, after managing one hit on Saturday — Wilkerson’s average is poor this spring. He’s 2-for-17 (.118).
“I don’t think the numbers indicate how I am feeling,” Wilkerson said. “Early on, I think getting back into the speed of the game, and just putting myself in game mode, took a little bit, took a few ABs. I was a little timid here and there, felt like it had been as long as it had been since I’d faced another team.
“Right now, I feel comfortable on each side of the plate,” the 29-year-old switch-hitter said. “I haven’t gotten a ton of at-bats and a ton of consistency but all things considered, I like where I’m at right now.”
Five days before the start of 2020 60-game season, Wilkerson broke his left ring finger in right field in Philadelphia, costing him the entire season.
He estimates that in a 162-game season he would have lost seven or eight weeks. Last year, a season with an expanded roster, a healthy Wilkerson would have gotten considerable playing time.
“A little thing like that, it was definitely still significant,” he said.
Wilkerson is an optimist, but he is also a realist. He knows there’s competition for a utility spot on the club and sees who has comparable skills.
“I would like to think that everyone does that,” Wilkerson said. “I look at it and say, ‘Where do I think I can help this team the most?’ I would think that evaluators probably do the same thing and it’s not like it’s, ‘Hey, this is my guy. It’s me versus him.’
“You certainly look and check personnel and run through scenarios in your head and see, ‘If this happens, maybe my role will be this. If this happens, my role will be this.’ At the same time, it’s about putting your best foot forward and playing your best ball.”
Pat Valaika, who’s on the 40-man roster, is probably ahead of Wilkerson if the Orioles keep only one utility player. But if Chris Davis begins the season on the injured list, which is likely, and the Orioles decide to begin with 13 pitchers instead of 14, Wilkerson has a better chance to go north.
Wilkerson is on a minor league contract and space on the 40-man roster would have to be created if he’s added.
In 2019, Wilkerson played center field by necessity. With so many outfielders in camp, Wilkerson is getting his playing time in the infield.
“I’ve always loved playing the infield,” Wilkerson said. “Infield defense is what originally got me into the big leagues. In the minor leagues when I was scuffling with the bat a little bit here and there, it was definitely my infield defense that kept me around long enough for my bat to catch up.
“It feels good to be back in the infield, but I certainly take pride in my ability to play any position at any time, infield, outfield. I think if you look at our outfield, it’s a pretty impressive group, so obviously I’m going to be in the dirt a little bit more. Those guys are danged good players. I love playing anywhere out there, but it’s nice to feel like it’s more of a true utility role, infield, outfield everything.”
Earlier this week, manager Brandon Hyde said that he wants his utility players to be able to play shortstop. Valaika is originally a shortstop while Wilkerson has played just two innings in his career there.
“It’s definitely important to be able to play shortstop,” Wilkerson said. “Most people would tell you it’s the most difficult position to be on the field. The fewest amount of people can do it.
“I think I can play shortstop. I feel comfortable over there. I’ve taken a lot of reps in practice over there and in summer camp last year … when we were having a tough time putting nine guys on the field on each side to play each other, I played some shortstop, too. If you’re talking about a utility guy, he needs to be able to play every position. Shortstop is just one of those, and I think they’re all important to be able to fill in at.”
Even though the team is struggling, Wilkerson thinks the 2021 Orioles are better than the 2019 and 2020 teams.
“There’s a lot of young talent,” he said. “Even guys that got opportunities last year after having opportunities before that maybe they didn’t take advantage of, certainly did last year. Overall, the level of talent around here has taken strides in the right direction, and we’ll see how everyone performs under the big lights.”