With spring training only a couple weeks away, Orioles manager Buck Showalter has a number of issues to sort out as it relates to his everyday lineup.
Most attention has centered around replacing outfielders Nick Markakis and Nelson Cruz — Steve Pearce, Alejandro De Aza, David Lough, Delmon Young, and the newly-acquired Travis Snider are among the candidates — but identifying who will lead off in the Baltimore lineup is anyone’s guess at this point. However, it’s not a question over which the skipper is panicking in early February.
“Somebody’s going to lead off Opening Day, I bet you,” quipped Showalter, adding that he’s more concerned with having a strong bottom of the order than with who’s hitting first. “Our guys don’t talk about it a lot. I’ve told you many times, [you could] just take your best hitter and hit him first to get more at-bats.”
It’s that very mindset that led to Markakis first becoming a regular leadoff hitter during the 2012 season even though he stole only six bases over his final three seasons with the Orioles. No one would confuse the Orioles with a track team after they stole a league-worst 44 bases in 2014, so speed isn’t a prerequisite for replacing Markakis at the top of the order.
Of the possible options currently on the roster, De Aza carries the most experience hitting in the leadoff position with 296 career starts there, but Showalter said Saturday it would be wrong to simply assume it’s his job to lose this spring. His career .334 on-base percentage in the top spot of the order is just a touch higher than his career .330 OBP overall, but De Aza told reporters he feels comfortable leading off if that’s what the Orioles want him to do.
His production in 2014 spiked when he was traded to the Orioles at the end of August, but De Aza is eager to rebound from a campaign he called the worst of his career as he hit only .252 with eight home runs, 41 runs batted in, and a .700 on-base plus slugging percentage combined with the Chicago White Sox and Baltimore. He would also represent one of the Orioles’ speedier options as he stole 17 bases last season.
“I can’t just go there and tell them that I want to be leadoff or they’re just going to give me the leadoff spot,” said De Aza, who added that Showalter hasn’t talked to him about the job to this point. “I’m just going to work hard, and they’re going to make the best [decision] for the team.”
Showalter acknowledged he’s had some “radical” thoughts about his lineup throughout the offseason, mentioning Lough, Pearce, Jonathan Schoop, Adam Jones, and even Chris Davis as potential candidates to be the leadoff hitter, but nothing is set in stone. Acquired from the Pittsburgh Pirates last week, Snider carried a .356 on-base percentage in the second half of 2014, and the Orioles hope that’s a sign of better things to come for the former first-round pick who’s struggled to realize his potential at the major-league level.
But if the Orioles are looking for a unconventional option who might also be the best one, Pearce led the club with a .373 OBP and worked the count as well as any hitter in the lineup a year ago. Even if the 31-year-old won’t match his lofty power figures of 21 homers and a .556 slugging percentage in 383 plate appearances in 2014, he has a career .335 OBP in parts of eight major league seasons as well as a .371 career OBP in the minor leagues.
Like Markakis, Pearce won’t offer much in terms of speed, but Showalter acknowledged the traditional leadoff hitter appears to be an endangered species in today’s game. In all likelihood, the Orioles will use a committee approach in Grapefruit League action until one or two hitters settle into the role depending on the opposing starter on a given night.
“They know things are going to change a little bit from time to time depending on who we’re facing,” Showalter said. “The conventional leadoff hitter like Brian [Roberts] was for a long time and like Rickey Henderson was for a long time, how many of them are there [today]?. How many guys can stay in the lineup against left-handed and right-handed pitching and be there every night?”