As the Orioles have fumbled their way through the first few weeks of the season, they've often struggled to field an adequate infield while coping with Manny Machado and J.J. Hardy injuries. But another, less painful, problem has also presented itself: the team is struggling to find at-bats for qualified hitters as well. The team finds itself juggling just two lineup slots (left field and DH) to deploy David Lough, Nelson Cruz, Delmon Young and Steve Pearce, all of whom (well, three of whom) are showing promise in different ways to start the season.
To start the season, Buck Showalter has mostly settled on a rough platoon situation, in which Cruz starts every day, with David Lough starting at left field against right-handed pitchers and Delmon Young DHs against lefties. Steve Pearce has been the odd man out in this scenario, garnering just 7 PAs in the first 13 games of the season. This platoon decision is somewhat justifiable but incomplete. Let's look a little closer at the four players, then an obvious but somehow off-the-table solution: Benching Nick Markakis.
David Lough - the defender
Lough doesn't bring a big bat to the table, but there's no question he brings the best glove of the four left field options. After Lough accumulated a tidy 1.3 dWAR in 2013, Orioles fans have seen him make some slick plays in left this young season, especially compared to Nelson Cruz's painfully bad routes or Young's lumbering range. The interesting thing about choosing to deploy the left-handed Lough in a platoon is that he has no career splits that favor batting him against righties, in fact hitting lefties slightly better (.710 OPS versus .686). Obviously Lough isn't going to be the Orioles' DH with his overall offensive numbers, and right-handed pitchers make up the majority of opponents, but the platoon situation doesn't make immediate sense, especially when watching the alternatives in the field.
Nelson Cruz - the bat
After the Orioles shelled out big bucks for Ubaldo Jimenez, forfeiting an additional pick to grab Nelson Cruz on a one-year deal was a nice add-on. And who knows, maybe Cruz insisted on some outfield playing time during the negotiations that led to him signing an $8M contract (half of the qualifying offer he turned down from Texas). But watching him play left against lefties these first few weeks has been ... interesting. He has maybe the best arm strength of the lot, but takes some really terrible routes and has even cost the team a run by diving for a ball he had no chance on and letting it get past him. Ideally, Cruz would be the team's DH every day, and that would be the end of it.
Delmon Young - the other bat?
With a huge small sample size caveat applied -- Young, the afterthought acquisition of the Orioles' offseason, has opened the season on an absolute tear, OPSing 1.023 in his first 26 PAs. Obviously, platooning against lefties doesn't yield the most opportunities, but Young is doing his best to force his way into the conversation, even earning some starts against righties while Lough battled an injury. Young has had a long time to justify his prospect hype in the majors, and he's never done so, but he may force the Orioles to start giving him more regular reps, if they only had a place in the lineup to put him. And of course, fans will have to look past those pesky off-field doubts.
Steve Pearce - the reliable fallback
When people debate the meaning of a "replacement-level player," I often find myself thinking of Steve Pearce, at least in the context of corner outfielders. His 0.5 WAR in parts of eight seasons would seem to confirm this gut impression. He's a below average defender (but better than Cruz or Young), but he has one pretty good tool -- mashing lefties, which unfortunately is also Young's and Cruz's best tool. Pearce is always going to be the bench guy with the way the roster is built right now, but it would be good to see him used at all in the situations where he'd benefit the team.
Looking at the Orioles attempting to juggle four guys with two lineup spots, maybe you immediately wonder, where else could we plug some of these guys in? Well, Steve Pearce can play first, but that doesn't help much, since it just bumps Chris Davis out of the lineup (suboptimal) or over to the DH slot (which doesn't help with the problem). But wait -- all of these guys can play right field -- so why aren't we even talking about that? Other than the fact that Nick Markakis makes $15M and is the "clubhouse veteran" (both terrible bases for day-to-day decisionmaking), there's really no reason to automatically plug him into the lineup every single day. And while his platoon splits aren't severe, he doesn't hit lefties nearly as well as he does righties.
There is no reason not to insert Markakis into the lineup-juggling equation. Instead of four guys for two spots, you'd have five guys for three spots. Markakis's bat has been uninspiring since 2012, and his defense has gone from very good to merely average. So why not deploy (against lefties, at least some of the time) Lough in RF, Cruz at DH and split time between Young and Pearce in LF?
It's an experiment worth trying. The counterarguments are soft and unpersuasive. A team as likely to be on the fringes of contention as the Orioles needs to squeeze the maximum amount of production out of the 25 men it has available each day. Trotting Markakis out automatically, every day, when the bench is full of lefty-mashers, isn't doing that. And if you're really stuck on issues like "respect," hey, maybe a little more time riding the pine will get Nick to up his game -- and that's the real definition of respect for the game and his teammates.