The Orioles kicked off their Grapefruit League schedule with a 4-2 win against the Rays in Port Charlotte, Fla., Feb. 28. With most of the Birds' regulars staying in Sarasota, Fla., the Orioles used a travel squad of mainly backups, including several players who will likely be competing for bench spots on the Opening Day roster.
One bubble player who made a strong first impression was newcomer Jemile Weeks. Batting leadoff, Weeks opened the game with a double off former Oriole Erik Bedard. He also drew a walk, stole a base and scored two runs before departing in the sixth.
For Weeks, whom the O's acquired from Oakland as part of the Jim Johnson trade Dec. 2, spring training could prove to be an important audition. Weeks has an option remaining, and he could find himself opening the season at Triple-A Norfolk if he struggles during camp. But a hot streak during exhibition play could garner Weeks a utility infielder role for the Birds.
It's also not out of the question that Weeks could earn the starting second base job, but Ryan Flaherty is currently considered the front-runner for that role. It would likely take a dazzling camp from Weeks and an awful one from Flaherty for Weeks to earn a starting gig.
Returning to a big league roster, however it happens, would be a step forward for Weeks, who was limited to eight games in the majors last year amid a dismal season in the A's organization. The Orioles could represent the fresh start he needs.
"I'm excited," Weeks said. "I like it. I'm just traveling wherever God leads me to go. And I'm loving Baltimore right now. … This is the place where I started, because when I got called up, this was my first game. My debut was here. I feel like the opportunity here is great and I feel like, going forward, that if everything goes well with this team, I'll gel and mesh well with this team as well. So I'm excited."
Weeks made his major league debut for the A's June 7, 2011, in Baltimore. Though he went 0-for-4 during that game, he torched the Orioles the next day, collecting his first three major league hits and finishing a home run shy of the cycle during a 3-for-3 performance. That kicked off an impressive rookie season, during which Weeks batted .303/.340/.421/.761 with 22 stolen bases during 97 games.
Weeks played well enough that he took over the starting second base job heading into 2012. But given a full-time opportunity, he crashed. During 118 games that year, Weeks dipped to a .609 OPS and fell out of favor with Oakland. He spent the majority of the 2013 season with Triple-A Sacramento, not returning to the bigs until September.
Weeks chalked up his struggles of the past two seasons to trying to do too much and getting out of his comfort zone.
"[In 2011,] I was myself," Weeks said. "I brought speed. I brought energy. I brought hard-nosed baseball. … [In 2012,] we just tried to work on a few things to enhance my game, and I've come to learn that you are who you are in this game. So whoever you are, that's why they drafted you. That's why they trade for you. You've got to be that player."
But if nothing else, the struggles might have been a learning experience for Weeks.
"I think a lot of growth has happened," Weeks said. "I think I went through some ups and I went through some downs. … I went through trying to work in other parts of my game that [were] asked of me, and everything turns around to being a more well-rounded player, I think. So I think this year we'll be able to see a more complete player of who I am."
If Weeks wins a bench role, he might be asked to fill in all over the diamond. Although his primary position is second base, he also played 25 games in center field and 23 at shortstop for Sacramento last year.
"I see myself as a second baseman first," Weeks said, "but I have experience at shortstop, I have experience in the outfield and I feel I can play anywhere in the field. I do."
This early during the spring, it's hard to predict what the future holds for Weeks as an Oriole. Some fans saw him as an uninspiring return from the Johnson trade, a scrap-heap pickup in what was essentially a salary dump. But if Weeks can rediscover his 2011 form and find a role with the Birds as a speedy, versatile jack-of-all-trades off the bench, critics of the trade could be singing a different tune.