The Orioles don’t have an obvious choice to be their everyday lead off hitter in 2017. This isn’t something new and it’s not necessarily a problem. The team has lacked a true lead off hitter since Brian Roberts started to have recurring injury problems back in 2010. Since then, they have opted for hitting a ton of home runs and winning loads of baseball games. That is great, but could it be even better with a rock solid table-setter in front of the big boppers?
Roberts was the best player on some very, very bad Baltimore teams. But it’s not as simple as saying he was the best of a bad bunch. He was an elite second baseman and lead-off hitter during his prime. From 2004-2009, his age 26-31 seasons, Roberts slashed .290/.365/.438 while averaging 46 doubles, four triples, 12 home runs and 35 stolen bases per year. That’s mighty tough to replace.
The most common Orioles lead-off hitters by season since Roberts got injured are as follows: Corey Patterson (2010), J.J. Hardy (2011), Nick Markakis (2012), Nate McLouth (2013), Markakis again (2014), Manny Machado (2015) and Adam Jones (2016).
Make no mistake, Markakis was a successful top of the order bat. As the lead-off hitter in 2012, the right fielder hit .335/.390/.489 and then followed it up in 2014 with a .274/.339/.379 line when batting first. But there was always debate about his presence in the top spot because sports fans just like to argue with one another.
So far in Spring Training, manager Buck Showalter has gone with several lead-off options: Joey Rickard, Hyun Soo Kim, Seth Smith, Chris Dickerson, Aneury Tavarez and Johnny Giavotella. Jones has consistently been second in the order.
It would appear to be unlikely that either Dickerson or Giavotella even make the team, let only get slotted in at the top of the lineup. They have not had especially glowing major league careers and Dickerson hasn’t even appeared in an MLB game since 2014. For them, triple-A seems like a more realistic option, where they could be just one injury away from a call up.
That still leaves five options, including Jones, as players who may find themselves at the top of the order more often than not this season. So, who should it be most often?
The 25-year-old former Rule 5 pick spent most of April and May last season as the Orioles lead off hitter. So, he has experience. But then a prolonged slump got him booted out before an injury ended his season prematurely.
Over 85 games in his rookie season, Rickard hit .268/.319/.377 overall with 18 walks, 54 strikeouts, four stolen bases and one caught stealing. As expected, those numbers had huge splits. Against righties he slashed .247/.296/.322 with 11 walks and 40 strikeouts in 174 at-bats. You can’t lead off with that line. But he crushed southpaws to the tune of .313/.367/.494 with only 14 strikeouts and seven walks in 90 at-bats.
But Rickard will have a serious battle on his hands to order to earn playing time. First, he needs to make the big league team. With Jones, Smith, Kim and Mark Trumbo as virtual locks, that leaves the second-year player to battle with the two Rule 5 picks for one final outfield spot. The Orioles try their darnedest to hold on to Rule 5 guys, just as they did with Rickard a year ago.
What a difference a year makes. Last spring, there was concern as to how Kim was adapting to the American game. By the end of March, he was being asked to go to the minors and was booed on Opening Day when he refused the assignment. Then, in the season’s early days, he felt like a wasted roster spot as Buck Showalter rarely played him.
Fast forward a few months, Kim became the Orioles most consistent hitter and smacked a key home run against the Blue Jays near the end of September to buoy the Birds playoff hopes. Now, it is expected that he will have a bigger role and may even be the favorite to lead off for 2017.
The former KBO star has the opposite problem of Rickard. He can’t hit lefties, or rather he hasn’t had the opportunity to hit them. In 2016, Kim had just 22 at-bats against southpaws, but he did go 0-for-22 in those chances. Overall, though, he was still really good, hitting .302/.382/.420 with six home runs and 22 RBI.
Eli Manning’s former backup has batted in every single spot in the order, including first, which he has done 99 times throughout his 10-year big league career. Batting lead off makes sense for Smith as he carries a career .344 OBP with him into 2017, a solid number on an OBP-deficient club.
But he too has really bad splits against left-handed pitching (.202/.282/.312) as compared to a nice .272/.355/.472 line when facing righties. Can anyone hit well against everybody when leading off?
One benefit for Smith maybe be the “Camden Yards bump”. Over the last five seasons, Smith has played in Oakland, San Diego and Seattle, three of the most cavernous home ballparks in the sport. He may be able to nab a few extra hits in the bandboxes of the AL East. Even still, one would think that it won’t be enough to make him a more attractive option to lead off than Kim, who has a similar skill set
If only one of the Rule 5 picks will make the team, Tavarez has to be the favorite. He is two-and-a-half years older than the other guy (Anthony Santander) and has played at triple-A with some success.
In 2016, Tavarez hit .330/.374/.495 across two levels of the minors. Prior to that, his highest OBP in a season was .328, so don’t be expecting an insane on-base machine here.
But even if he makes the team, is he going to play enough and be trusted at the top of the order with so many other options on this roster to do the same thing? It’s certainly not impossible, but does feel rather improbable.
Adam Jones is a good baseball player. He even did a nice job as the Orioles primary lead off hitter in 2016, batting .281/.320/.471 in that role. But he shouldn’t be the everyday option there.
By his nature, Jones is a free swinger who wants to hit the ball as hard as he can and drive in runs. It’s not in his game to work the count or to put getting on base ahead of simply scoring runs. Lacking those traits isn’t conducive to leading off.
One benefit of having Jones at the top of the order is it has cut down on his propensity for grounding into double plays. He led the Orioles in that category in 2015 with 21, but managed to cut it back to just 13 last year. Of course, that means that number will jump right back up if he hits second in the order as Showalter seems intent on doing, but thems the breaks, kids.
So, who is the guy?
There is no Roberts on this team. Even if there was, Showalter probably wouldn’t stick with one guy in the same spot every single day anyway. That just isn’t something he does. There will be a revolving door based on that day’s matchup and the weather and the color of the uniforms or anything else that Buck deems important.
That said, Kim must be the favorite. Most pitchers are right-handed and he hits right-handed pitching more consistently and effectively than anyone else on the team. Although he hasn’t proven an ability to hit southpaws yet, he was able to do it in Korea and would likely have some level of success if given the chance over time.
However, when a tough lefty is on the mound, expect to see Rickard in this slot. Last season wasn’t a fluke. He has always done a nice job with lefties dating back to the minors.