Orioles DFA Ruiz, promote Wilkerson to continue shakeup at second base

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Unhappy with their dearth of production at second base through the first quarter of the season, the Orioles designated infielder Rio Ruiz for assignment and promoted utility man Stevie Wilkerson prior to Tuesday’s series opener against Tampa Bay.

Ruiz was one of the first waiver claims of the Mike Elias era after originally being selected by Houston — the general manager’s previous organization — in the fourth round of the 2012 amateur draft. Just days shy of his 27th birthday, Ruiz just hadn’t taken advantage of more than 700 plate appearances with Baltimore over the last three seasons, posting a .220 average and a .672 on-base plus slugging percentage. His struggles were even more pronounced this season as the lefty hitter batted only .167 with three home runs and a .550 OPS in 101 plate appearances.

With the mid-March signing of third baseman Maikel Franco, Ruiz was seemingly put on notice and shifted from third base to second, a position he played at a respectable level despite little professional experience there. Still, his offensive woes led manager Brandon Hyde to give more frequent starts to Pat Valaika and Ramon Urias at second base in recent weeks. Urias was optioned to Triple-A Norfolk on Sunday while Valaika is batting just .173 with a .464 OPS this season.

Ruiz could be outrighted to Triple-A Norfolk if he clears waivers, but the Orioles needed his 40-man roster spot to select Wilkerson’s contract from the Tides.

“It’s an extremely difficult day to say goodbye,” said manager Brandon Hyde, citing how popular Ruiz is in the Orioles clubhouse. “He’s going to go through the waiver process. Whatever’s best for him, I hope it works out, whether it’s with us or another club.”

Wilkerson, 29, hasn’t played in the majors since 2019 after missing last year’s abbreviated season with a fractured finger suffered in July camp. The switch-hitting utility man owns an underwhelming .644 OPS for his career, but he’s played virtually every position in the majors, famously registering a save in the Orioles’ wild 16-inning win over the Los Angeles Angels two years ago. Hyde anticipates Wilkerson receiving the bulk of the starts at second base for the time being with Valaika remaining in the mix.

(Stevie Wilkerson discusses his return to the majors prior to Tuesday’s game against Tampa Bay.)

Playing primarily in the outfield to begin the 2021 season at Norfolk, Wilkerson was batting .357 with a homer, two doubles, six walks, and a .914 OPS in his first 49 plate appearances to earn a promotion. He was batting ninth and starting at second base for Tuesday night’s series opener against the Rays.

“He brings flexibility for us from a roster standpoint, being able to play him in different spots, being able to move him around the field, and he’s swinging the bat well right now,” Hyde said. “Hopefully, he can give us a little boost offensively, and I’m excited to see Stevie today.”

After receiving surprisingly respectable production from Hanser Alberto in the previous two years, the Orioles have struggled to find a suitable replacement after electing not to tender him a contract in the offseason. Baltimore released Alberto’s projected replacement, former Gold Glove winner Yolmer Sanchez, at the end of spring training and will now be starting its fourth different player at second base through 41 games. Alberto is batting .228 with a .579 OPS in 81 plate appearances with Kansas City this season.

Triple-A prospects Jahmai Jones and Rylan Bannon are candidates to be called up later this season, but the organization would prefer them gaining more experience playing at Norfolk.