One of the more startling developments of summer training camp beyond John Means’ dead-arm period is the potential crashing of the opening day roster projection party.
It feels like they carpooled and brought their own keg.
The odds of Valdez’s making the trip to Boston for Friday night’s opener were placed at a “hard no” back in March, if such a thing actually exists, as he worked out at the minor league complex in Twin Lakes Park. His five scoreless innings in Grapefruit League games, with no walks and nine strikeouts, made him an interesting visitor to camp.
Nothing more beyond the idea that perhaps he could provide rotation and bullpen depth, first at Triple-A Norfolk and later at the alternate site in Bowie after the cancelation of the minor league season.
Ask me now whether I think Valdez is going to be on the 30-man roster and I’ll say there’s a better than 50-50 chance that he makes it.
Manager Brandon Hyde said the club will carry 15-16 pitchers and Valdez offers the sort of length that’s valued in much the same way as versatility among position players.
If he isn’t slotted at the back end of the rotation - and Means’ questionable status on opening day raises some interesting possibilities - he could be used in long relief after the Orioles sent candidates Hector Velázquez and Chandler Shepherd to the Bowie camp and Ty Blach underwent Tommy John surgery.
Thomas Eshelman and Davis Hess were kept at the Camden Yards camp, with the former starting last night in Philadelphia and tossing 4 2/3 scoreless innings. Kohl Stewart or Tommy Milone could shift to the bullpen if excluded from the rotation.
Valdez doesn’t have a clear path, but there’s a lot less debris since he signed with the club out of the Mexican League. Some of the decision-makers in the organization are staunch supporters of Valdez based on his ability to fill up the strike zone and get outs with secondary pitches that make his fastball appear to have more velocity.
Given a chance to start in Friday night’s intrasquad game, Valdez allowed two hits and again didn’t issue a walk in four scoreless innings. He retired 12 of 14 batters and was chosen as the series’ Most Outstanding Pitcher.
Hyde sat behind home plate and said Valdez missed his intended spot only once or twice. Now consider how often Orioles pitchers fell behind in the count last summer and played right into the hitters’ hands.
There wasn’t a more unlikely roster addition for opening day than the 35-year-old Valdez. But it’s no longer an absurd notion.
Far from it.
But he kept hitting - for power and average. One of the toughest outs in the two lineups. And Hyde allowed him to play left field and second base in Saturday’s game and inserted him in right last night after Wilkerson injured his left hand in the second inning.
The Orioles signed Herrera on Dec. 5 and thought he could compete with Rio Ruiz at third base, but that spot isn’t up for grabs. Trey Mancini isn’t around in 2020 to provide an alternative to Chris Davis at first base.
Most of Herrera’s professional experience has come at second base, where he made 52 starts with the Mets and 563 in the minors. He’s played every infield position and the outfield corners.
Hyde wants to keep all four of them if Wilkerson can avoid the injured list, but it would take some creative roster maneuvering.
“There’s something in every one of these guys’ games that fits in nicely with our ballclub,” Hyde said. “That’s going to be a really tough decision at the end and one I’m not looking forward to, to be honest with you, because they all bring a little bit something different.
“Velazquez plays in the middle of the field, plays center field also. That’s a huge plus for a guy who can play three spots in the middle. You’ve seen Stevie Wilkerson out there at shortstop a little bit lately for that reason. I know he can play center. He proved that last year. Did a nice job in the corner outfield when I stuck him out there with no experience, and he’s played second base in the past. And he switch-hits. And his right-handed swing has really improved. He’s swinging the bat really well from the right side here in the last week.”
Wilkerson made a nice sliding catch in right field last night to rob Jean Segura with two runners on base, but is going to visit a hand specialist due to swelling in his ring finger. Herrera batted for him and went 0-for-4.
He won’t be judged too harshly.
Herrera won’t allow the Orioles to easily move away from him and limit the Colombia native to workouts at the Bowie camp site and maybe the taxi squad.
“Herrera just keeps hitting the ball hard,” Hyde said. “It seems like every time up he’s squaring it up. And he’s got some versatility also. He can play both corner positions, play both corner infield positions, came up as a second baseman in his Mets days. So he’s versatile also.
“Really, it’s going to be a tough choice. Valaika has done the same thing. He’s played both middle spots, has played first in his career, has played third in his career and has played corner outfield in his career. So it’s really going to be a tough choice if it comes down to it where we just have to pick two or three of these guys, because I really like all their game and I’d love to keep all of them.”
Valaika hit a solo home run last night and seems to be a lock for opening day.
How many infielders are kept also depends on the number of catchers, outfielders and pitchers carried.
“A lot goes into that,” Hyde said.