Rickard begins Orioles career hitting in No. 9 spot

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BALTIMORE — In Buck Showalter’s first pre-game press conference of the 2016 regular season, the opening question was about new Orioles left fielder Joey Rickard and his spot in the batting order.

What a difference a year makes for the Rule 5 pick who began his 2015 season playing in the Florida State League for Single-A Charlotte and was slotted ninth in the Opening Day order on Monday. After contemplating whether to hit the 24-year-old in the leadoff spot, Showalter wanted to ease the former Tampa Bays Rays farmhand into the major league environment.

Not bad for a guy few Orioles fans even knew about a couple weeks ago.

“There’s a process you’re trying to get to how you hope things work out,” said Showalter, who put All-Star third baseman Manny Machado in the leadoff spot as he frequently did last year. “You leave yourself as much wiggle room [as you can]. I’d rather promote guys as the season goes on rather than demote them. I know where I’d like to get eventually, but we’ll see if that works out.

“Let’s go one step at a time.”

Carrying a career .390 on-base percentage in four minor-league seasons, Rickard turned plenty of heads this spring as he batted .397 with a 1.044 on-base plus slugging percentage in 72 plate appearances. The performance not only won him a roster spot but propelled him into the regular lineup to begin the season.

Ideally, the Orioles would slide Machado to the second or third spot in the order to maximize his run-producing ability, but few players on the current roster fit the profile of a top-of-the-lineup hitter. The organization hopes Rickard can prove to be that guy sooner rather than later.

Showalter contemplated hitting Rickard second on Monday, but he didn’t want to put Machado in a position where Minnesota might pitch around him in the order. For the first game at least, the Baltimore manager was more than happy to give as many plate appearances as possible to Machado, Adam Jones, and Chris Davis in the top three spots in the lineup.

As expected, Hyun Soo Kim was on the bench to begin the season opener. The Korean outfielder has a provision in his two-year, $7 million contract signed in December that doesn’t allow the club to send him to the minors without his consent.

“There’s some positives about him being able to take [Opening Day] in, but I also realize this is some more uncharted waters for him,” Showalter said. “There’s a lot of things happening to him for the first time in his 28 years. He’s getting a lot of support from coaches, management, but most importantly, the players. I know they’re all pulling for him. It’s a real good vibe around him with his teammates.”

Placed on the 15-day disabled list with right shoulder strain on Sunday, right-handed pitcher Kevin Gausman will throw a 35-pitch bullpen session on Tuesday. Assuming that goes well, the next step would be a three-inning outing followed by a five-inning one with the goal of Gausman being activated to start against Toronto on April 19.

Lefty reliever Brian Matusz (left intercostal strain) is scheduled to pitch for Double-A Bowie on Thursday and would be activated from the DL on April 10.

Infielder Jimmy Paredes (left wrist) is taking swings with a fungo bat, but it remains unclear when he will resume full baseball activities.

Below are the Opening Day lineups:

MINNESOTA
2B Brian Dozier
1B Joe Mauer
RF Miguel Sano
3B Trevor Plouffe
LF Eddie Rosario
DH Byung Ho Park
SS Eduardo Escobar
C Kurt Suzuki
CF Byron Buxton

SP Ervin Santana (2015 stats: 7-5, 4.00 ERA)

BALTIMORE
3B Manny Machado
CF Adam Jones
1B Chris Davis
RF Mark Trumbo
C Matt Wieters
DH Pedro Alvarez
SS J.J. Hardy
2B Jonathan Schoop
LF Joey Rickard

SP Chris Tillman (2015 stats: 11-11, 4.99 ERA)