Baltimore Orioles utility man Ryan Flaherty gained a lot of experience playing in the major leagues last year. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

The decision the Baltimore Orioles face with utility man Ryan Flaherty already was one of the most difficult of the of the spring. Flaherty, 26, has not made the decision 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 send him to Class AAA Norfolk.

“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 Chicago Cubs with the fourth pick of the Rule 5 draft in December 2010. A former first-round supplemental pick out of Vanderbilt with strong pedigree — his father 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 didn’t play much early on, but progressed as the season went along and also benefited from a nine-game rehab stint in Class AAA Norfolk after a bacterial infection in August.

In the second half of the season, Flaherty improved his OPS from .519 in the first half to .773.

In the postseason, Flaherty became the first Rule 5 pick to play in the playoffs in 17 years and had hits in each of his three starts. That included a third-inning homer in Game 3 of the AL Division Series at Yankee Stadium, as he became the first Orioles 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 a big-league 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’s was the ultimate goal.

“Even in the beginning of the year, when I wasn’t playing [much], I remember [former Orioles DH] 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.”

Flaherty added: “Sometimes you can actually get just as much out of that as you can by 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.”

Flaherty spent the offseason 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.

“Think about all the things he’s been exposed to in the past year,” Showalter said. “I gotta tell you. He didn’t get the at-bats in the place he should have during winter ball, but just being there and seeing another phase of it. It was a lot of time to think about it and stay engaged.”

That’s why Showalter isn’t convinced yet that Flaherty should begin this season in Class AAA. And Flaherty’s strong spring has supported the theory that he might now necessarily need seasoning in the minors.

He’s been one of the club’s most consistent hitters — he has a .262/.367/.571 hitting line with four doubles, three homers and 10 RBI in 23 spring games — and has shown vastly improved defensive range from the middle infield positions.

The play Flaherty made during a split-squad game in Tampa against the Yankees, when he ranged deep into the hole at short and threw out a runner at first well into the outfield grass, might have been one of the highlight defensive plays of the spring.

“I think he looks more comfortable,” Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy said. “I definitely think there’s a comfort level. He had a new team, a new organization, last year. When he played consistently last year he was pretty good. This spring, his swing looks really good – free and easy – and defensively he’s playing a bunch of different positions and he’s playing them all really well.”

With Gold Glover Hardy entrenched at short and second baseman Brian Roberts is healthy, the Orioles claimed veteran Alexi Casilla, who can be the back up to both middle-infield positions, this offseason.

— Baltimore Sun