For the second season in a row, outfielder Hyun Soo Kim has been relegated to bench duty for an Orioles team that desperately needs his on-base ability. Instead of giving Kim a well-earned regular spot in the lineup, manager Buck Showalter has preferred to hand playing time to less proven and less deserving players with questionable skillsets.
Deja vu all over again
This is a carbon copy of what happened a year ago. Kim, who struggled in the 2016 spring and refused a minor league assignment, was a fixture on the bench until becoming a starter in late May. Once he was given a chance, Kim shined with his .302/.382/.420 batting line, and delivered one of the most clutch moments of the entire season.
Skipping ahead to this past spring, Kim was much better down in Sarasota. He showed little power, but his .271 batting average and .353 on-base percentage indicated that he was much more prepared for a major league season.
His reward? A smattering of playing time and abbreviated appearances where, on the rare occasion he starts a game, he is almost always the first player lifted in favor of a more “defense first” option in the outfield.
Granted, his numbers have not been great. Going into Monday’s action, Kim has a .222/.311/.296 batting line with one double, one home run and three RBI over 54 at-bats in 21 games. For reference, the Orioles have played 42 total games.
Meanwhile, Craig Gentry stole 37 painful at-bats prior to be demoted. Joey Rickard has been given 56 at-bats for some reason. And Mark Trumbo has played in every game so far, which makes some sense given his track record and the contract he has, but his bat has been ice cold at times.
The only two corner outfielders that have totally deserved their playing time are Seth Smith and Trey Mancini. Smith has, surprisingly, served as an ideal leadoff man and boasts an impressive .303/.388/.506 batting line while playing OK defense. Mancini has been kind of a mess with the leather, but he is hitting well enough (.300 batting average, seven home runs, 22 RBI) to forgive the defensive trouble. The kid is certainly a contender for Rookie of the Year at this point.
Makes no sense
Even still, the lack of playing time for Kim has been ridiculous. Gentry was both a below average fielder and terrible hitter, yet he was given several starts against left-handed pitching. Rickard, who is supposed to be a left-handed pitching specialist, is hitting .229 against southpaws. Kim, is 1-for-1 in his lone at-bat against a left-handed pitcher this season. Let the man get a game!
Overall, the Orioles .258 batting average ranks 12th in the majors while their .317 OBP is 21st in the league. As a result, they find themselves in 15th place for runs scored. All of those numbers are perfectly mediocre and, with the way the Baltimore pitching staff has recently imploded, are not good enough numbers to push the O’s into the playoffs.
The offense needs to step up to the next level. It’s really not difficult. Kim is a contact hitter and high-OBP guy when playing regularly. To score more runs, you want as many people on base as possible. Putting Kim in the lineup would likely lead to the Orioles scoring more runs, which is, ya know, the whole point of baseball.
Designating Gentry for assignment was a good first step. Next, Rickard needs to be demoted. His presence only tempts Showalter. Because he is a right-handed hitter that has decent foot speed, Showalter can’t help the “old school manager” inside of him and start him against lefties or misuse him as a defensive replacement.
The kicker is that Rickard is not really an upgrade on Kim in any aspect of the game apart from maybe stealing a base, which is just super important because we all know how much the O’s LOVE to steal bases.
The more difficult thing to understand for Showalter may be that just because Trumbo has a sizable contract does not mean that he should be an automatic starter every single game. While his batting average has perked up recently, the slugger was around the Mendoza line well into May. Replacing Trumbo with Kim for a day or two here and there could have been a jolt to the offense. Instead, the Orioles played with a blackhole at DH most days.
So you’re saying there’s a chance?
In a piece from the Baltimore Sun last week, Kim came off as very understanding of the situation. And Showalter made it clear that Kim’s lack of playing time is more a result of Mancini’s and Smith’s successes than it is an indictment of Kim’s failures.
The manager also made it known that, in all likelihood, Kim will get an opportunity. Mancini will probably have a rookie slump. There is no way Smith will be this good all season. And one or two inopportune injuries could throw a monkey wrench into the works.
But it shouldn’t take all of these wacky things to happen in order for Kim to get a true, honest-to-goodness chance at being a regular starter for the Orioles. If he stinks, then bench him. But the Orioles have already decided that he is the worst of all of their major league outfielders based on how they use him.
It’s a strange decision, because the mediocrity of the offense is a result of how the lineups have been deployed thus far this season. As we have just run down, most of the time that lineup does not include Kim, the man who is probably the best on the entire team at regularly getting on base.
This was nearly an identical problem a year ago. It will be fine if a similar outcome leads to Kim becoming an everyday member of the lineup soon, but it shouldn’t take as long as it already has. Kim proved himself all last summer and deserved an extended run as a starter from the beginning of the season.