Ryan Flaherty forcing Orioles to make a tough decision

Utilityman has fared well this spring, could make roster or be sent to Norfolk

March 24, 2013|By Eduardo A. Encina, The Baltimore Sun

SARASOTA, Fla. — — The decision the Orioles face with Ryan Flaherty was already one of the most difficult ones of the of the spring before major league camp began, and as the team's days in Sarasota are whittled away, the 26-year-old utilityman has done nothing to make the organization's choice any easier.

Last season, as the Orioles' Rule 5 draft pick, the choice was more definitive. If the Orioles didn't keep Flaherty on the roster for the entire season, they'd very likely lose him.

This year, Flaherty can be optioned to the minor leagues. Given the experience he gained in 2012, the Orioles must decide whether it's best for Flaherty to remain with the big league club as a multidimensional bench player or to go to Triple-A Norfolk to get regular at-bats in preparation to be an everyday player with the Orioles eventually.

“It's not always revealed to you right out of the chute,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “With some conventional thinking about him going down and playing every day, I'm not sure how much of that he needs. That's the debate right now. We're always going to err on the side of [deciding] if he can help us win baseball games in the major leagues, and if so he will come up with us.”

The Orioles believed they got a steal when they plucked Flaherty from the Cubs with the fourth pick of the Rule 5 draft two Decembers ago. A former first-round supplemental pick out of Vanderbilt with a strong pedigree — Flaherty's father, Ed, is the longtime coach of Division III baseball power Southern Maine — his bat projected well to the major leagues. It was just a matter of where he would play in the field — Flaherty came up as a shortstop, but also spent considerable time at second and third in the Cubs' system — and whether he could be an everyday big league player.

And after one season, the Orioles believe the left-handed hitting Flaherty can be that. He didn't play much early on but progressed as the season went along and also benefited from a nine-game rehab stint in Triple-A Norfolk after a bacterial infection in August. Flaherty improved his OPS from .519 in the first half of the season to .773 in the second half.

In the postseason, Flaherty became the first Rule 5 pick to play in the playoffs the season after being drafted in 17 years and had hits in each one of his three starts. That included a third-inning homer in Game 3 of the American League Division Series at Yankee Stadium, as he became the first Oriole rookie to homer in the postseason. Including the postseason, Flaherty hit seven homers in 164 at-bats last year.

Now that he has logged a season of big league experience, Flaherty entered this year's spring training more comfortable in an Orioles uniform.

“It helped a ton,” Flaherty said. “Last year, everything was new. Everything I experienced was stuff that I never experienced before. There were a ton of firsts. … Everything I did, I felt that through everything I tried to get better. That was the ultimate goal.”

As a rookie, Flaherty formed a close relationship with 11-year veteran Nick Johnson, who played just 38 games because of a wrist injury. And he also looked to Jim Thome for advice after the Orioles acquired him in a trade with the Phillies in July.

“Even in the beginning of the year, when I wasn't playing [much], I remember Nick Johnson was telling me that people say in Triple-A you're getting at-bats but he told me to make yourself get better even when you're not playing, just by watching and learning things. Sometimes you can actually get just as much out of that as you can by actually hitting. So I kind of learned a lot from that, just by watching when I wasn't in there and then getting a change to play.”

That was a lesson Flaherty first learned growing up the son of a college coach in Maine, where high school seasons were limited to 16 games because of the weather. As a kid, Flaherty would be a constant presence around his father's program, learning from older players and taking in small nuances about the sport.

“He was one of those kids, he's just liked being around, even when he was a little guy,” said Ed Flaherty, whose Southern Maine team won Division III national titles in 1991 and 1997. “He was very observant. He caught on to everything. He watched a lot. And I think that played a role why he can play all those different positions. You could tell at a pretty young age that he has good knowledge of the game.”

Flaherty spent this offseason continuing his baseball education by playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic. He joked that when he received his travel itinerary for the trip, he couldn't understand it because it was in Spanish. He only got 43 at-bats playing for Escogido, but he used the opportunity to get more experience playing in the outfield.

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