Utility competition loses player but doesn’t gain much clarity

SARASOTA, Fla. - Among the most unsettled competitions in Orioles camp is the job of utility infielder, which ideally requires the player also to have outfield skills. Not a deal-breaker, but a sweet bonus.

No one within the current group of candidates has seized the opportunity. There are absolutely no indications that the Orioles will head north with Luis Sardiñas or Engleb Vielma and they reassigned Ruben Tejada yesterday to minor league camp. It’s nice to have that kind of middle infield depth at the upper levels of the system, though the inability to develop it from within remains an issue.

Vielma has gained about nine pounds in camp and still could fall through the shower drain. He’s regarded as a plus defender and he made a sensational backhand stop and glove flip yesterday at second base to start a double play, but he’s also bounced numerous throws to first base and, trust me, the Orioles are counting and know the exact total.

orioles-dugout-sidebar.jpgThere isn’t much offensive production expected of Vielma, who’s 2-for-16 with a two-run triple in Dunedin. Tejada was 7-for-36 (.194) with two doubles, but Sardiñas has gone 11-for-31 (.355) with two doubles and five RBIs. Tejada committed three errors and everyone in the competition has been guilty of bobbling balls before recording the outs.

Sardiñas would benefit from a higher motor. He has tools that could be beneficial later this year.

The Orioles will consider Danny Valencia and a shift in utility philosophy. He hasn’t played shortstop in the majors or minors and he’s made only three starts at second base in the bigs. They’ll point out how they found out Steve Pearce could play second by tossing him out there. Valencia could be subjected to a similar experimentation.

Spring training would be the time to do it.

How interesting that Valencia’s chances of earning a spot on the 25-man roster could be tied to Ryan Flaherty despite being such opposites.

The Orioles could sign Flaherty if he doesn’t stick with the Phillies and they might not be able to carry both players on a four-man bench that includes the backup catcher, an extra outfielder with plus-defensive skills (Craig Gentry comes to mind) and Anthony Santander, who must stay on the roster for the first 44 days before losing Rule 5 status and is 15-for-43 (.349) this spring with two doubles, three home runs and 14 RBIs.

Flaherty isn’t the only utility player on the club’s radar. They like Adam Rosales, who’s competing with Flaherty, and could consider Pedro Florimon, who began his professional career with the Orioles and also is in Phillies camp. They also could check on Erick Aybar if the Twins let him go.

The Twins are expected to make a decision on Aybar near the end of camp and he’s been dealing with a sore oblique that hinders his hitting from the right side of the plate. Flaherty, meanwhile, has a March 22 opt-out date in his contract.

The Orioles liked Neil Walker and were wondering why it took so long for him to sign while playing at the IMG free agent camp in Bradenton. The Yankees got him for $4 million after he made $17.2 million last season with the Mets.

Walker is primarily a second baseman with 17 starts at third base and eight at first. Again, no shortstop experience. The Orioles considered how he might fit with them, but couldn’t promise the desired playing time. The money probably wouldn’t have worked for a part-timer stuck behind Jonathan Schoop and Tim Beckham.

Meanwhile, Tejada and Vielma made their offensive pitch yesterday in a 7-4 win over the Yankees. Coming off the bench again in a home game, Tejada led off the seventh with a double, took third on Vielma’s single and scored on Alex Presley’s sacrifice fly.

Tejada is gone. How the rest plays out remains one of the more interesting storylines.

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