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How should the Orioles handle the infield without J.J. Hardy?

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Until the veteran shortstop returns, how should the Orioles handle shortstop and second base?

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Near the end of spring training, the Orioles found out that they'd be without the services of veteran shortstop J.J. Hardy to start the season.  While Hardy's shoulder injury resolved a roster battle, allowing all three of the other middle infielders (Everth Cabrera, Ryan Flaherty and Jonathan Schoop) to break camp with the club, it wasn't how they drew things up, and Buck Showalter of course wants Hardy to get back as soon as possible after he becomes eligible on Saturday.  Until that happens, the club has some decisions to make.

Let's go in with an assumption that nothing too crazy is in play.  If the club wanted to, they could play Steve Pearce at first, give Chris Davis some time at third base, bump Manny Machado to shortstop and then just juggle the three guys above at second base.  This might allow the club to roll out the best bats every day, but it's a suboptimal defensive alignment, and we all know how much this club prioritizes defense.  That goes double with Machado and Davis coming back from injury and suspension, undoubtedly needing to get in a rhythm, which will be far easier while playing their natural positions.  So we'll roll with the assumption that the Orioles are just planning to juggle Cabrera, Schoop and Flaherty at second and short.

You can view the Orioles' signing of Cabrera two ways: To add some depth to a system without much high-minors promise in the middle infield, or to put some pressure on Schoop, after a 2014 where he occasionally looked outmatched at the plate, despite his raw power.  I tended to view the signing through the latter lens.  There's a strong argument to be made that the club should let Schoop sink or swim, which is really unrelated to Hardy's injury.  Flaherty or Cabrera can back up Schoop occasionally, but the club should just let his impressive arm hold down the defense, while finding out whether his bat will level off against major league pitching.

We only have a two-game sample to look at, but the club doesn't seem to be taking that approach.  Against two right-handed starters, the club has started Schoop at second once, Cabrera at short once, and Flaherty once at each position.  While Flaherty is probably the most bench-like known commodity of the three, if the team has to press him into duty, it's going to be against righties.  Against them, he sports a career .655 OPS, versus .630 against southpaws -- not huge, but the reverse of the switch-hitting Cabrera, who has hit lefties over righties, .680 to .641.

So against right-handed starters, expect to see what you've started to see until Hardy returns -- take your pick of Schoop or Cabrera (but not both), at their natural position, based on matchups or whoever needs rest, and plug Flaherty at the other one.  And against left-handed pitchers, expect to see Flaherty take a day off, with Schoop at second and Cabrera at shortstop.  To some, this is less ideal than just platooning Flaherty and Cabrera at shortstop, but it's not the worst solution in the world.

None of it answers the question of who goes down when Hardy returns, either.  You can probably make the case for any of the three -- Schoop needs to play every day (if he wouldn't do so in Baltimore).  Flaherty is the most expendable bat, despite his defensive versatility.  Cabrera is an unknown commodity working his way back from off-field troubles and a poor 2014.  We don't know who the Orioles would have sent down if not for Hardy's injury, and they probably won't tip their hand anytime soon.  For now, they can use the positional carousel above as a kind of extended spring training to get a little more data for their decision.