It wasn't until the middle of February, when Spring Training was in its infancy, that David Lough was overtaken by Ubaldo Jimenez as the most high-profile acquisition of the Baltimore Orioles 2013-14 off-season.
On December 18 of last year, the O's shipped off utility man, and southpaw annihilator, Danny Valencia to Kansas City in exchange for Lough. The move was lauded as another shrewd pickup by Vice President of Baseball Operations Dan Duquette.
Lough was coming off of a season in which he finished 8th in the Rookie of the Year voting for the American League (a title that former Royal-farmhand, current Ray Wil Myers took home). He was a plus defender with nice speed who had hit for a solid average during his first big league season, but didn't provide much pop.
In addition, the team had control of him until 2020 and he was a young-ish guy. At the time, he was 28 years old, by Opening Day of 2015 he will be 29 years old. The bigger key was that he was going to be cheap for the forseeable future and filled a need.
In fact, the left-handed swinging Lough was being pegged as the starter in left field until the team brought in Nelson Cruz a few days after nabbing Jimenez. Even still, it seemed as if Cruz would DH and Lough would man left. But on Opening Day, the little guy found himself on the bench with the slugger out in the field and another free agent signee, Delmon Young, taking the cuts from the DH spot.
It was not a result of a poor Spring Training from Lough. He hit .310/.356/.452 with two doubles and two triples and was 4-for-4 on the basepaths. He even made a few nice plays in the field and wasn't showing any difficulty dealing with left-handed pitching, which can be a detriment from some. Although, Jon Lester starting for the Red Sox that day likely played a factor.
But he couldn't match what either Young nor Cruz offered with the bat. The whole point of signing Cruz was to plug some right-handed power into the middle of the lineup and that just isn't Lough. Nonetheless, he still figured to get ample playing time with the fact that he is a far superior fielder than either Cruz or Young.
That was the case in April. He made appearances in 18 of the team's games, taking 58 at-bats. He showed off his legs with four steals and a triple but hit a meager .172 with two doubles. On top of that, he went 0-for-6 in the first two games he started in May, getting him demoted to bench duty. He would make a cameo in nearly every game but was given just 30 at-bats in the month, normally coming on as a defensive replacement late in games.
Manager Buck Showalter used Lough predominantly as a bench player for the remainder of the year. However, he did turn things around, hitting .296 in June, .400 in July, .333 in August and .357 in September. With that outstanding play, his average rebounded from .159 at the end of May, up to .247 at the season's close.
The reason he was able to stay with the big club all year was that he was so reliable in the field. His Ultimate Zone Rating in the outfield was 11.1, the second-best mark on the team behind J.J. Hardy. In left field it was an 8.3 in 398.1 innings. In center it was a 4.3 in 87.0 innings. And in right it was a -1.6 in 15.0 innings, despite that being his primary position when he was with Kansas City.
It allowed the Orioles to get the best of both worlds to an extent. They could get the power from Cruz or Young for most of the game, and then hand the glove to Lough to help close out wins.
Both Baseball Reference and Fangraphs agreed to give him a WAR of 1.9 for the season. That isn't anything remarkable on its face, but it was better than the likes of Young (0.9), Caleb Joseph (0.8), Jonathan Schoop (0.6), Ryan Flaherty (0.6) and Chris Davis (0.5), according to Fangraphs. That is pretty impressive considering he had the fewest plate appearances, 197, of anyone on the team that was with the big club all year.
The 2014 season was not what many expected from Lough coming into Spring Training. He seemed like the odds-on favorite to start in left field all year. It didn't happen. I mean, come on, Cruz for $8 million? You can't turn that down.
He struggled in the platoon role to being the year while Cruz and Young both flourished. The Matt Wieters injury may have stolen a start or two from him with Wieters DH'ing for a few games putting Cruz in left. Alejandro De Aza was brough in late in the year to serve as a balance between Cruz and Lough. It just wasn't the Akron native's year.
Going into 2015, things remain unclear for Lough. De Aza would have to be the favorite. But with Chris Davis returning how do you keep Steve Pearce out of the lineup? He has played left field before. Is Nolan Reimold still available somewhere in the world?
The safe guess would be that Showalter likes having him on the bench most of the time. He is a legitimate defensive replacement anywhere in the outfield. He showed at the end of the season that he can handle the bat little bit. Not to mention he has some wheels if he chooses to use them. Expect him as the O's fourth outfielder with perhaps a slightly bigger role than simply "ninth inning replacement" should the left field situation remain as it is.