SARASOTA, Fla. — There was no ease-in period for Terrin Vavra.
The ball leapt off Riley Greene’s bat, forcing the Orioles utilityman to act on instinct alone while playing a position he had played only once before in a professional game. Starting at third base for the first time, in the second game of spring, Vavra dove to his right, snared the grounder and hurled it across the infield to record an out against the Detroit Tigers.
“It was kind of nice to get that one out of the way,” Vavra said.
Vavra dove into the deep end with that play at third base. It was a longer throw, a different angle off the bat — just about everything changed from what he’s usually asked to do playing second base, his primary position for the Orioles since arriving in the major leagues last season.
But part of Vavra’s push to maintain his place in Baltimore is his versatility. He grew up as a middle infielder, added all three outfield spots after he was drafted by the Colorado Rockies and traded to the Orioles, and this offseason began to mix in practice at both corner infield positions while also adding a catcher’s mitt to his collection, just in case.
At the end of last season, the coaching staff and front office were in agreement. Manager Brandon Hyde, general manager Mike Elias and others met with Vavra and challenged him: “You need to be able to play all the positions in the infield, all the positions in the outfield,” they told Vavra.
He embraced the challenge, leading to a standout play in his first attempt at third last month, a position he had hardly played prior to this offseason. And as opening day arrives, Vavra’s place on the roster appears secure because of his versatility.
“Any time they try to improve your set of tools or where you can go play, I think that comes from a place of interest,” Vavra said. “They have confidence in you, your athleticism, to go play another position. So I think that was the exciting part, knowing that they saw me as someone they were confident to test that stuff out with.”
Vavra has proven he can get on base. He’s a career .306 hitter in the minor leagues, reached base at a .340 clip for the Orioles last year and hit .348 during spring training.
His defensive versatility, though, might be his greatest strength — and opens the door for him to be in the lineup nearly every day, despite hopping around positions.
The Orioles are in a unique place as opening day arrives as compared to past years. The wide-open competition at positions has given way to a set of proven major leaguers, with Ramón Urías, Gunnar Henderson, Adam Frazier and Jorge Mateo the likeliest set of rotating infielders. But there’s an additional bench spot that favors a player such as Vavra, one who can fit multiple positions and offer upside at the plate.
Henderson and Urías can both play third base. Urías might see more time at second, though, and Henderson projects long-term as a shortstop, leaving Vavra’s development at the hot corner as an important step to provide further depth in the infield.
This spring, Vavra played nine times at second base, five times at third, twice in left field and once each at first and right field.
“I’d be lying if I said I feel ultra-confident,” Vavra said of third base. “But I’m confident in my athletic ability, I’m confident in how many times I’ve played this game and watched this game, and ultimately I’m pretty confident in my ability to adapt, so having confidence in those things, knowing how I prepare, knowing how I’m working every day to get better at it, I think I find some confidence in that.”
Vavra spent the offseason at home in Minnesota, using the indoor facility of the Golden Gophers, his alma mater, as well as the indoor field at the University of St. Thomas, where his brother Tanner coaches.
On those covered fields, Vavra saw hundreds of grounders and fly balls at each position. He learned the intricacies of how to find the bag when playing first base. He learned how little time he has at third for a throw compared to second.
But all that practice only got him so far.
“You never really know until you’re in that spot,” Vavra said, “you’re on the field and seeing balls off the bat.”
So this spring was revelatory for Vavra, gaining confidence by doing, one sharp grounder at a time.