Let me preface this by saying that spring training statistics largely mean squat. In stating that allow me to also say that it’s become difficult to ignore just how well the Baltimore Orioles have played this spring, they are currently sporting the best record in the Grapefruit League at 9-2, and maybe it is time for the skeptics out there to brace themselves because the Orioles appear to be focused on winning every single game — even if it is only spring training.
Even though the Orioles, as a team, are playing incredibly well right now there is one competition in particular that I have been keeping an eye on. That competition is for the final spot on the bench and though it may seem pointless to some it’s actually one of the more important decisions this team will make this spring.
That final bench spot will play a vital role on this team as it will allow manager Buck Showalter to have a legitimate option in resting Manny Machado, Chris Davis, and even Nate McLouth throughout the season. It may not seem like much but the player who wins that spot will also have an opportunity at some semi-regular playing time if they prove themselves capable of handling the bat and the glove. McLouth likely won’t be playing against tough lefty starters, Machado will be playing his first full season in the big leagues after his 51 game audition last year, and Chris Davis will be manning first base full time so it will be important for Buck to keep all of these guys fresh and put them in position to be as successful as possible while not running them ragged.
The players that are currently competing for that final bench spot are Russ Canzler, Travis Ishikawa, Conor Jackson, Steve Pearce, Danny Valencia, possibly Trayvon Robinson, and of course Ryan Flaherty. If I had to handicap the race right now based on what I’ve seen during the spring then I would say that Ishikawa , Valencia, and Robinson are on their way out.
None have shown much at the plate right now and it goes beyond their spring training stats. They have yet to find a level of comfort at the plate that would indicate to me that they’re close to being able to consistently make solid contact and neither Ishikawa or Valencia play the outfield. Robinson, on the other hand, does play the outfield (well might I add) but his hack and slash approach at the plate does not a quality bat off the bench make.
Whether those three players are included in the next round of cuts or not no one knows, probably not even Buck at this point because anything can change when evaluating a player’s performance, but as of right now they are the ones holding the short sticks. Having a group that now consists of just Canzler, Flaherty, Jackson, and Pearce kind of helps clear up the race for the bench.
Believe it or not Canzler was the International League MVP in 2011 with a .314/.401/.530 batting line for the Durham Bulls, but he was also 25 years old. He’s now 26 and even though he’s shown the ability to get on base at a high clip in the minors it was still the International League and the I.L. typically produces AAAA type hitters, with exception to guys like Jim Thome and Jim Rice of course. It’s worth it for the Orioles to find out what Canzler has to offer at the big league level but if other players prove to have more immediate value to the team then he’s likely out. The Orioles are looking to continue their winning ways and can’t devote too much time to a guy that may or may not be anything other than a minor league pitching killer.
We got a pretty good idea of what Pearce could provide the team last season, when we had him that is, and he’s certainly the type of player you’d want on your team if you had the room for him. He can play first base, third base, and also handle the corner outfield spots. He doesn’t do anything spectacular in the field but he’s not half bad either. On offense he’ll see his fair share of pitches but I would like to see him square up on the ball more and hit more line drives as opposed to fly balls. He has some pop but not quite enough to where those fly balls are going to suddenly get out of the park at a higher rate.
He’s had a very impressive spring so far though and not just because of the numbers he’s putting up. The sound you hear when his bat meets the ball has been pretty impressive and he’s really driving it with authority, like I said I wanted to see more of from him. He hustles and plays hard each and every play — essentially the kind of player the Orioles want on the roster.
Another player that’s still in competition for the final roster spot is Flaherty who, I must admit, I came to like a great deal last season. Granted, his final stat line didn’t look very impressive at all last year but his hustle and willingness to get better was apparent. The one thing that should be noted though was how well he did in high pressure situations. Flaherty had a .423 wOBA and a 169 wRC+ in high leverage situations (as noted by FanGraphs) and a .354 wOBA and 122 wRC+ with RISP. That tells me that he didn’t let the pressure get to him and he was able to block out his own personal stat line in those situations which is a good trait to have and otherwise known as mental toughness.
The one advantage that Flaherty has over everyone else in this race for the final roster spot is that he can play anywhere on the field super-utility man style. He can play any position on the field other than pitcher and catcher and he’s also an average to above average fielder everywhere he does play. The fact that he’s able to play second base well enough also bodes well for him but the fact that he can be optioned to Triple-A without having to pass through waivers first does not.
Finally we come to Conor Jackson, who in my mind is one of the more intriguing players in camp with the team. Jackson, if you recall, was considered one of the up-and-coming corner outfielders in the game with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2008. Many predicted he was poised for a huge breakout year in 2009 but then something less than fortunate happened — he caught Valley Fever.
Valley Fever is a nasty disease/infection to get because it debilitates your immune system and can cause the infected to become afflicted with other conditions such as pneumonia as Jackson did. This is something that put him on the DL for the majority of the 2009 and 2010 season as he was fatigued and unable to do much beyond bed rest and very light activity at home. When he finally did come back in 2010 he still wasn’t quite up to par and even in 2011, the first time he played over 60 games in season since 2008, he was just starting to feel like he could play at full speed again.
He’s been tearing the ball off the cover this spring and looks to be in great shape overall. His swing looks sharp, he can play the corner infield and corner outfield spots, and he excels at getting on base and hitting for a high average. If Jackson is fully recovered and in tip-top shape, which I believe he is, then I think he really has the edge when it comes to the final roster spot. He’ll perform well for the team off the bench and the occasional spot start but he’s also someone that could handle playing every single day if the team needed him to.
Who would you like to see earn the final spot on the bench for the team?