For about 36 hours last week, we all thought the Orioles were on the verge of landing the perfect leadoff hitter. Unfortunately for the O's and their fans, the strange Dexter Fowler saga did not end favorably. For a brief time visions of a dream lineup danced through everybody's heads. Now it's not so grand, but even without Fowler, the O's should be able to field a formidable lineup.
The trio of Manny Machado, Adam Jones, and Chris Davis figure to be doing beautiful things no matter where you slot them in. If you're willing to believe in Jonathan Schoop (15 home runs in 86 games last season) and Matt Wieters, now presumably in better shape after an offseason where he didn't have to worry about recovering from Tommy John surgery, now we're talking about five spots in the lineup that are looking good.
Tentatively, I am believing in Schoop and Wieters having solid seasons at the plate. The rest of the lineup... well. That's a different story. And even among the players who you feel good about, who should bat where?
The leadoff question
Modern baseball wisdom says you should bat your best hitter leadoff, so that your best hitter gets more chances to bat. After all, a leadoff batter is only guaranteed to bat first one time per game, right? There is also that part of the brain that would like to give power hitters more chances to bat where there will be men on base ahead of them.
Davis is the team's most prolific power hitter, but why would you put him first, with the junk bottom of the lineup coming up ahead of him in every inning where he doesn't lead off? Machado was so good in 2015 that it's tempting to place him in the "too good" to lead off category as well.
Machado got on base at a .359 clip, which made him a fine leadoff hitter last year, but it's still not hard to look at those 35 home runs and 30 doubles and think, "Get some people on base ahead of that guy!"
But if not Manny, who else? The Orioles don't have any other proven on-base machines on the roster. They don't have a classic idea of a speedy pest on the basepaths guy either.
Nolan Reimold is at least not afraid to take a walk, and newcomer Hyun Soo Kim showed that capability overseas. If either shows OBP capability this season, I could see them popping up at the top. The Orioles, in fact, were 13-6 when Reimold led off last year. Reimold posted a .260/.372/.425 batting line in those games. Still, unless Reimold proves himself again in a bigger sample, let's roll with Machado at the top.
Sorting out the heart of the order
In the old days, a baseball team might want its #2 hitter to be a "bat control guy" who can "move runners up." The O's don't really have that guy on the roster, and anyway bunting is stupid, so forget about that.
Last year, Orioles #2 batters ranked 12th in OPS in the AL. They accumulated a .255/.311/.405 batting line. The two most frequent #2 batters were Jimmy Paredes and Travis Snider. In a perfect world, there'd be some other decent-hitting bridge between Machado and the heart of the order - another guy to potentially get on base for the power hitters. Again unless Reimold or Kim are doing well this year, that player's not on the roster.
So instead of screwing around with inferior hitters just because they might seem like some classic idea of a #2 hitter, wasting outs between Machado and the big power threats, let's just bypass that altogether and pick between Jones and Davis for the #2 spot.
It's actually not a hard choice. Davis as #2 behind Machado lets the O's stagger right-left-right, something that seems to be important to Buck Showalter, although it's an open question as to how much that matters when both Machado and Jones bat better against righty pitchers than lefties. Davis will bat more often, possibly with fewer outs, and he'll probably either walk, strike out, or hit a dinger.
Jones doesn't post horrendous sub-.300 OBP numbers, but he's not an OBP guy, so rather than treat him as a guy who gets on base for Davis, let him rip as the guy who drives in Davis or Machado, either of whom might have already homered anyway.
Cleanup and beyond
This hypothetical lineup starts to get weird from here on, as if it wasn't weird enough already. Now the three best batters have gone, so who hits cleanup? I will put in Wieters here. He has never in his career hit like a cleanup hitter, which is what makes this weird. But it's only weird because three more "ideal" cleanup hitters already batted ahead of him, and that's a good problem.
The switch-hitting Wieters again keeps the platoon stagger going on if he bats #4. Who else would it be? Schoop? Like Showalter's going to have a cleanup hitter with less than a thousand big league plate appearances. Against lefties, maybe Mark Trumbo, who hits them much better than righties (.280/.330/.526 in 2015). But neither feels like a guy who belongs ahead of Wieters, so Wieters at #4, then some combination of Schoop and Trumbo at #5 and #6.
Assuming Trumbo is the DH - which he won't always be - we've now covered everything except the corner outfield spots and shortstop. J.J. Hardy (.219/.253/.311 in 2015) has no business being anywhere but last... unless going in on a "second leadoff" hitter at #9 sounds like a good idea with a genuine power threat in Machado as our leadoff hitter as the lineup turns over. Which, actually, it kind of does.
Perhaps Kim could grow into that while also hiding him at #9 to let him get acclimated to MLB. So Reimold at #7, Hardy at #8, Kim at #9, maybe?
The resulting lineup
|9||Hyun Soo Kim||LF|
It looks weird, and there's no doubt it would all look better if Fowler was at the top and all of the sluggers were bumped down a spot. That would have been fantastic, and it's why the Fowler reports were initially so exciting and then so crushing. It was right there in front of us, and then... nothing.
But that's still a lineup with a whole lot of power potential, and the players most likely to realize it are at the top, getting more chances to bat and potentially hit homers. It has its problems, like the lack of a "true" leadoff hitter, and four righties in a row from 5-8. Bench lefties are going to be... what, Ryan Flaherty and Jimmy Paredes? Yowza.
Not that the O's necessarily need bench lefties anyway. As mentioned above, Machado and Jones both hit righty pitchers better despite being righty batters. That's true of Schoop and Hardy also. Maybe they need bench righties who actually hit lefties - like Reimold, if I wasn't already penciling him in to the starting lineup.
Another big problem is it remains a very feast-or-famine kind of lineup. This is not a "get the sac fly RBI with the man on third and less than two outs" lineup. It's a "if there's a man on third and less than two outs, that's two guys who might get a base hit" lineup. It's a "striking out is better than grounding into a double play" lineup.
That's the roster that's been assembled. They will be what they are no matter who's in what order in the lineup. What do you think? What order would you put these guys? And how do you feel about their chances to score a bunch of runs?