For Stevie Wilkerson: New year, same challenge

SARASOTA, Fla. - The Orioles’ versatile infielder and outfielder Stevie Wilkerson was designated for assignment last March 23 when the club added catcher Pedro Severino via waivers.

But in this case the DFA was not very damaging for his career. Less than a month later - on April 22 - Wilkerson was called up from the minors and added back to the major league roster. He didn’t know it then, but after playing 16 games for Triple-A Norfolk, he would go on to play 117 for the 2019 Orioles. He would lead the team in center field starts with 57 - a position he played just twice before his call-up. He would even take the mound and become the first position player to ever record a save.

Wilkerson-Martin-Celebrate-Outstanding-Catch-Gray-Sidebar.jpg“It was an unbelievable year,” he said recently. “From being DFA’d late in spring training and getting called back up in April. Fortunate enough to have a little bit of success there at the beginning and stayed up for the large majority of the year. Not to mention some of those crazy things that happened along the way, like pitching. It was a wild and fun year.”

But after all the fun, Wilkerson was DFA again recently. This time on Jan. 31. A few days later he cleared waivers and was still with the organization. So he’s here in spring camp as a non-roster player.

This was the second time he was officially outrighted off the 40-man roster back to the minors. Players can elect free agency the second time that happens. Wilkerson thought about it.

“Very briefly,” he said. “I knew that I would have preferred to stay with Baltimore. I looked around very briefly.”

But he didn’t want to leave, and for his next task he’ll try to pull off what he did last year - go from being DFA to back on the roster.

“I really don’t look too far into it,” Wilkerson said. “Whether I’m on the roster or not, my job is to show up every day ready to play to the best of my capabilities. Nothing changes, whether I’m on the roster or not. There is a lot of opportunity here and this is the only organization that I’ve known. I’m very happy to be here.”

Signed as an infielder when the Orioles drafted him in round eight out of Clemson in 2014, Wilkerson said he’s not even sure anymore whether to classify himself as an infielder or outfielder. But the ability to play both makes him versatile and might help him win a super-utility role with this club.

“I’m not sure. I don’t know, with the 26th man now, how teams will go about using that. That goes for us too. No idea how they plan on using it. But the more spots you play, the more opportunity there is,” he said, adding that last year taught him to expected the unexpected and embrace new challenges.

Wilkerson enjoys playing for manager Brandon Hyde and his staff. He credits them with keeping the team upbeat last season. That had to be difficult amid 108 losses.

“Difficult at times, for sure,” said Wilkerson. “But, I think it starts at the top. When you have a coaching staff that doesn’t harp on negativity, no matter what happens. Shows up energetic and fresh. They set the tone for everyone else to go about things the right way. And in my opinion, that is being positive and optimistic. Regardless of the record we had last year, we came to play every day and came with energy and a good attitude.”

And Wilkerson gained some fans last year with his “I’ll do whatever you need” attitude. He played center for the first time. He pitched four times. On July 25 at Anaheim he retired the side in order in the last of 16th and earned a save. The game ended at 4:27 a.m. on the East Coast.

Wilkerson’s cap and the ball from the final out of that game made it to the Hall of Fame, and Wilkerson now has a lifetime membership. Fans seemed to enjoy his story.

“A lot of fans had some really nice things to say,” he said. “I think one of the things that brought a smile to my face is they said it was fun to watch me play. That is cool to have people say that. Great feedback from fans and really nice to hear.”

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