When the Orioles drafted senior second baseman Steve Wilkerson in the eighth round out of Clemson in 2014, the odds seemed long that he would ever make the major leagues. But coming off his best year yet - which ended with a strong performance in the Arizona Fall League - Wilkerson’s big league dream is within reach at this point.
He showed defensive versatility this year, leading to the possibility to compete in the future for a big league utility role. He’s a switch-hitter with some speed and advanced to Double-A Bowie in 2017. It was a season where a once overlooked eighth-round pick put a positive jolt into his career.
In 41 games at Single-A Frederick and 71 with Bowie, Wilkerson combined to hit .305/.375/.423 with 23 doubles, eight homers, seven steals, 45 RBIs and an OPS of .798. That was up from his 2016 OPS of .673 with Frederick.
“I think this season was big for me to get experience at positions all over the field,” said Wilkerson, who turns 26 on Jan. 11. “I’m thankful I got to do that in Frederick, Bowie and the Arizona Fall League. At the beginning of the year, I made a commitment to a certain approach and I stuck with it all year.”
The approach was the keep-it-simple approach. Don’t overthink or overanalyze it and don’t spend too much time in the cage tweaking his swing.
“Moreso than anything else, I limited my swings outside of the game,” said Wilkerson. “I didn’t focus as much on mechanics in the cage as I did in years past. I really just wanted to go into the game with a fresh mind. My main thought was just to go out and compete, and I stayed with that mindset all year. Just compete and block out all the other mechanical things you might work on in the cage.”
The success carried over to the AFL. In 23 games with Salt River, Wilkerson hit .317/.396/.512 with three doubles, five triples, a homer and 10 RBIs. He hit .286 against left-handers and .328 versus right-handed pitching.
Did the keep-it-simple approach come from a suggestion from within the organization or was it Wilkerson’s thought?
“It was a combination of both,” he said. “Me and (Orioles minor league hitting coordinator) Jeff Manto have been working together for three years now. It was kind of a combination of what he thought and what I thought. Really, the key to it all was getting off to a good start this year. And having confidence that I was doing the right thing.
“For the most part, I put the bat on the ball pretty well this year. I definitely really had some ups and downs along the way. Unless you are Austin Hays, it is pretty hard to go all season without going in a slump. It was a fun year. I had great teammates and got great opportunities. The higher you climb, you know, the closer you feel like you are to going where you want to go. That makes it fun.”
Wilkerson did get off to a great start, batting .351 in April at Frederick. For the Keys, he hit .323/.407/.426, and with Bowie he batted .294/.354/.420. He hit .373 versus lefties and .298 against right-handers in Frederick, and .288 against southpaws and .296 versus right-handed pitchers at Bowie.
“When you put in the work and you get yourself in the right mental place to take the field with confidence, good stats are like a reward for that work you put in,” he said.
I asked Wilkerson to size up his strengths on offense.
“My goal is to get on base any way I can,” he said. “Throughout my career, I have been more of a run scorer than RBI guy. But any way I can get on base is the game I try to play on offense. I haven’t hit with much power in my career, but I have had the ability to put the bat on ball, draw a walk, and hit some doubles and triples. My offensive mindset is just to get on base.”
With a career OBP of .343 and slugging percentage of .361, Wilkerson would like to add some pop to his game.
“I have accepted the kind of player I am,” he said. “But at the same time, one of my goals this offseason is to get myself into a strong athletic position every time I swing the bat, with a goal in mind to put a few more balls into the stands and drive in some runs. Be a little bit more productive.”
A second baseman for most of his career at Clemson and most of his pro career until this past season, Wilkerson expanded his defensive resume in 2017. When Jomar Reyes got hurt early in the year with Frederick, he moved to third base. That was later expanded to include a few outfield starts and Wilkerson developed into a player with the potential to be a utility guy. He made a few starts at shortstop in the AFL when O’s manager Buck Showalter was in the stands.
“I love it. I love the challenges presented at each position,” he said of moving around the diamond. “I love playing defense and laying out for balls. It has always been a big part of my game. I feel like my range is pretty good. I felt comfortable when I was at short in the fall league.”
The ability to move around the diamond has seemingly made Wilkerson even more valuable for the Orioles. But despite that, he was not recently added to the 40-man roster. He is eligible to be taken by any team in the Dec. 14 Rule 5 draft.
“I was a bit discouraged at first,” WIlkerson said. “But I knew I did what I could do and the rest was out of my hands. You just roll with the punches and go from there. All that is out of my hands, but I’ll do my best to prepare for next season to get myself ready. Hopefully, I put myself in a good position this year. All in all, it was a productive year.”
It was indeed. One where this one-time eighth-round pick is overlooked no longer.
Photo by Terrence Williams/MiLB