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BALTIMORE — With Dylan Bundy recently undergoing Tommy John surgery and Kevin Gausman just optioned to Triple-A Norfolk, there isn’t a player in the Orioles system garnering more attention than Cuban outfielder Henry Urrutia at the moment.
So it came as no surprise when Orioles outfielder Chris Dickerson was scratched from Wednesday’s lineup with a strained left shoulder that many began wondering if the 26-year-old Urrutia could be on his way to Baltimore. The veteran Dickerson was feeling better on Thursday, decreasing the likelihood of a trip to the 15-day disabled list, but it’s appearing more like a question of when and not if Urrutia will make his major league debut this season.
Even manager Buck Showalter jokingly asked prior to Thursday’s game what was wrong with the left-handed hitter after collecting only one hit in the Tides’ loss to Gwinnett earlier in the day. Urrutia was 5-for-5 on Wednesday and is now hitting .357 in 56 at-bats for Norfolk after hitting .365 with seven home runs and 37 RBIs in 200 at-bats for Double-A Bowie prior to his late-June promotion.
With the Orioles unable to find any consistent production at the designated hitter spot through the first half of the season, Urrutia would appear to be moving closer to consideration for an opportunity in Baltimore. At 6-foot-5 and 200 pounds, he remains awkward in the outfield despite his improvement, but his bat is what has many salivating over.
Urrutia will play for the World Team in Sunday’s Futures Game at Citi Field as part of next week’s All-Star Game festivities in New York.
“I think he’s getting closer to being an option. He’s certainly done his part,” Showalter said. “The thing that I’ve been happy to hear about is his defensive play has been good. He’s one of those type of guys that takes up a lot of the batter’s box when he puts his body in it. [Norfolk manager Ron Johnson] said he’s kind of one of those guys you expect to get a hit.”
Urrutia defected from Cuba to Haiti in 2011 before being signed by the Orioles last year to a contract that included a $778,500 bonus. He finally obtained a work visa late in spring training before eventually reporting to Bowie in April and he’s been hitting ever since.
His performance has been even more impressive when you consider the long layoff he experienced from competitive baseball due to his struggles in escaping his home country. Urrutia’s initial attempt to defect from Cuba was unsuccessful, which drew him a suspension for their 2011 season before he was finally able to exit the country later that year.
Executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette and Showalter weren’t exactly sure what kind of condition Urrutia would be in when he reported to Sarasota earlier this year, but they knew they had a major-league caliber talent on their hands upon finally seeing him.
“He’s had a lot thrown at him this year that’s new in his life,” Showalter said. “Starting from getting out of Haiti to getting here and getting acclimated to America and a lot of different things we take for granted. It’s been a long, patient road for him.”
Though not projected to have the same home-run power of other recent Cuban defectors such as Yoenis Cespedes or Yasiel Puig, Urrutia displayed good gap power with the Baysox, collecting 16 doubles to go along with his seven homers. In his brief time with Norfolk, Urrutia has four doubles and a triple but has yet to connect for his first Triple-A home run.
If he can even come close to replicating his production between the two levels at the big-league level, the Orioles may have a solution to their season-long problem at the DH spot sooner rather than later.
“He hits a lot of sharp, topspin groundballs kind of skidding the other way too,” Showalter said. “He’s swinging [the bat] well. I’m proud of him.”
NOTES: Dickerson was examined by team orthopedist Dr. John Wilckens prior to Thursday’s game and received an injection in his left shoulder, but Showalter anticipated the reserve outfielder being available to contribute over the weekend. … Right-handed pitcher Steve Johnson threw live batting practice in Sarasota on Thursday and could next pitch in a sim game in his recovery from a strained left oblique that’s kept him on the DL since June 6. … Infield prospect Jonathan Schoop played in his first minor-league rehab game with the Gulf Coast League Orioles on Thursday, going 0-for-2 with a walk before being lifted in the seventh inning. He is expected to play rehab games there for the next week or so before rejoining Norfolk’s roster. … Zach Britton will start on Sunday for the Tides with Kevin Gausman scheduled to pitch in relief after him. The two were optioned to Norfolk following Tuesday’s loss to the Rangers. … Asked how rare it was to have three All-Star starters (Adam Jones, Chris Davis, and J.J. Hardy) who were acquired via trades, Showalter offered the line of the day in acknowledging the club’s fourth All-Star representative Manny Machado: “Manny was kind of a trade too. We traded our season the year before to be able to draft him.” Of course, the 2009 Orioles went 64-98, putting the organization in position to draft Machado with the third overall pick of the 2010 draft.