After Manny Machado went down with season-ending knee surgery, the Orioles reached an uneasy new normal with Chris Davis holding down third base most days. Davis's third base defense was suspect, but having him over there allowed the team to keep Davis, Steve Pearce and Nelson Cruz all in the lineup on a daily basis without trotting Cruz out into the field. It was working well enough until Davis went down with a 25-game suspension for Adderall, one that will carry through at least the midpoint of the ALCS, if the Orioles advance that far.
Putting aside Jonathan Schoop, who's technically an option, but showed that he was much better used at second base early in the year, the team essentially has three choices to play at third base during the ALDS. Third base was a real problem as the team closed out the season, with seemingly a different guy struggling each day to glove a routine grounder, know when to pocket a tough play, or complete a hard throw across the diamond. Errors abounded, and big hits did not. So what does the team's choice look like right now?
2014 batting: .221/.288/.356 (312 PAs)
Career at 3B: 369 innings, +3 DRS, -1 UZR/150
Flaherty has proven himself to be more of a utilityman than an everyday player since coming to the Orioles via the Rule 5 draft. The lefty is defensively versatile (playing every infield position except catcher) and acquits himself well wherever he's deployed for the most part. At third base in particular, his range and glovework make up for a merely adequate arm.
With the bat, of course, Flaherty can be miserable to watch at times. Aside from running into the occasional mistake pitch, he struggles to make consistent contact, although it's worth noting that he was one of the only hitters who didn't go completely hack-happy in the 2012 playoffs, and that his hitting got somewhat more useful at the end of 2014 as his playing time became more regular (.804 September OPS).
2014 batting: .215/.296/.362 (297 PAs)
Career at 3B: 487 innings, +3 DRS, +10.3 UZR/150
Johnson was a late-season acquisition, completing his tour of the AL East after zipping through the Yankees, Red Sox and Orioles organizations in a single season. He's struggled with the bat at every stop this year, though in a small sample (45 PAs), he picked it up a bit in his month with the Orioles (110 OPS+).
Johnson's career defense at 3B looks surprisingly similar to Flaherty's, but a closer look reveals that a lot of that defensive value comes from years past with the Rays. I used career defensive stats because single-season defensive stats can be finicky -- but in the case, the stats and eye test agree that Johnson has struggled with consistency at the hot corner in 2014.
2014 batting: .286/.308/.444 (65 PAs)
Career at 3B: 516 innings, -2 DRS, -11.1 UZR/150
Paredes provides the most intriguing offensive option on the roster among potential third basemen. In limited playing time, he's hit pretty well in his time as an Oriole, and his approach has looked solid even without having a chance to really get in a rhythm.
But the defense... man. In one of the last few games of the season, Gary Thorne said that Paredes "had the yips" at third base, and he was right. Paredes was airmailing throws left and right to close out the year, and this after he struggled with some basic glovework right after his initial callup. Fielding percentage can be a silly thing, but a .900 fielding percentage doesn't happen to a good defensive third baseman. Playing Paredes would be a defense-for-offense tradeoff, no two ways about it.
How should the Orioles do it?
For my money, the Orioles should give Ryan Flaherty the bulk of the third base playing time in the ALDS. The team's success is largely built around its stellar defense, which can make its ordinary rotation into a consistently above-average force. Flaherty is the best defensive option when you factor in Johnson's performance this year in particular. And Flaherty's bat has come around just enough lately that the Orioles can hope he won't be a total black hole in the lineup.
If there's a day to sit Flaherty, it will be against tough lefty David Price, who Flaherty's never actually faced in his career. That would be a good day to give Johnson a spot start, both for having a better glove than Paredes, and because, even though he also bats lefty, he has no meaningful platoon splits in his bat, whereas the switch-hitting Paredes has always fared better against righties.
But all in all, Flaherty should be the Orioles' guy heading into the playoffs. Hopefully Buck Showalter sees things the same way. There's no great option on the roster, but Flaherty looks like the least worst choice.