BALTIMORE -- With speed, an above-average glove and a bat that displayed flashes of natural power despite the high schooler's propensity to swing for the fences far too often around the South Florida fields, he was unquestionably talented.

But when it came to describing Robert Andino, there was always a but -- a three-letter clause sticking to the toolsy utility player for the better part of the past decade.

The ability was there. After getting selected in the second round by the Marlins in the 2002 First-Year Player Draft, scouts raved about Andino's upside as he moved steadily through Florida's system before he debuted with the big league club in 2005. But there were questions about Andino's focus and makeup, lingering concerns that only grew when he was beat out for the Marlins' starting shortstop job in the spring of '06 -- a position that went to young phenom Hanley Ramirez -- setting off a string of three seasons in which Andino was shuttled back and forth from Triple-A Albuquerque.

While his Minor League numbers remained impressive, Andino struggled to absorb the blow of being relegated to the bottom of the organization's depth chart, and the Marlins seized the opportunity at the start of the 2009 season to swap the expendable infielder for O's right-handed pitcher Hayden Penn.

Penn -- who was waived by Florida the following spring -- never panned out. But in an Orioles season full of injuries and underperformance, Andino is proving he is far from expendable: he has been flat-out essential.

"I hate to think where we would be without him," said Orioles manager Buck Showalter, who has not only used Andino to fill in for second baseman Brian Roberts (concussion), but also to cover for shortstop J.J. Hardy's month-long absence and to allow Mark Reynolds to swap corner-infield spots after the trade of Derrek Lee and injury to newly acquired third baseman Chris Davis.

"Someone may smirk at that or whatever," added Showalter of the team's dependence on a 27-year-old bench player who had never had 200 at-bats in a Major League season before this year, "[but] Robert's got a chance to have a long career up here if he just stays true to the things he's doing right now.

"He's trying to develop that trust -- for us with him, and in some cases, [for him] with us. But I'm real proud of him. The one thing everyone always describes Robert is ... is talented. [He's] trusting his ability and getting out of his own way, and he's been pretty consistent and solid for us. He's well on his way to establishing himself."

Through 125 games, Andino is hitting .263 with 21 doubles, three homers, 26 RBIs and a .326 on-base percentage. He said the numbers, including a career-high 11-game hitting streak that was snapped Wednesday night, are simply a result of getting a chance to play every day and establish a rhythm.

"I just hope I showed somebody that I belong," Andino said.

Those around him see the transition a little differently.

"He's still got that fire; he cracks me up half the time he's on the field," said center fielder Adam Jones. "But he's come into his own. Everybody's getting older as people, trying to get smarter at what we can do and what we know how to do as players, and he's learning about himself more than I think he even knew.

"He still knows there's a day he might come in and not play, but he comes in every single day with the right mind-set of, 'I got to get better, I got to get better. I've got to have better at-bats.' He's a good friend of mine, so I'm biased toward him, but I've seen the progress firsthand."

That progress has been a direct response to the challenge put out to Andino this spring: There's a spot for you on this team, now go out there and take it.

"It's funny, I spoke to him [before Tuesday's game] about that," said infield coach Willie Randolph, who has worked closely with Andino all season. "I just wanted him to know how much I appreciated his effort.

"He's been really lending to all the detail, really concentrating on all the things we talked about. I'm proud of all my guys, they give me the effort. But most of all, Andino has really done an outstanding job."

Utility infielders who possess Andino's complete skill set are rare, and it's no surprise that the Orioles received several inquiries from other interested teams looking to make a trade.

Gone, mostly, are the days when Andino would step up to the plate looking to hit a home run. He has made a conscious effort to "recognize his role" and try to put the ball in play. The mishaps -- most memorably, his struggles to bunt earlier this season -- are still present, and they're growing pains Andino has taken in stride.

Even on a night like Wednesday when his hit streak was snapped with an 0-for-3 performance, Andino didn't cower or sulk. Instead, he made an impact with his glove, making a diving stop on Ben Zobrist's ninth-inning grounder and completing a throw from his knees to get the first out of the inning. He followed that up with a backhanded catch to retire Johnny Damon and help thwart the Rays' rally in the Orioles' 6-2 win.

"I think he's changed [the way the organization views him]," Showalter said. "I had an open mind about it coming in here. The real challenge is how somebody handles success. When they get comfortable, will they continue to try to grow and get better and bring what they bring? For Robert, the challenge is bring what you bring, and know that I can count on it every day and don't have those emotional ups and downs that everybody has here."

With Roberts' return and the state of the Orioles' roster for next season in flux, where Andino fits in is anybody's guess. But there is no longer any uncertainty about whether he belongs.

"[I told him], 'I don't see why you can't be an everyday player, someday, somewhere,'" Randolph said. "Don't just assume, 'OK, because I've been a utility guy, that's my role.' No, he's young enough and his skill set is enough that [I said], 'If you really focus every day on what you need to and keep your mental aspect strong ... don't give in to who people perceive you to be. You can play.'"