Just like the lack of a frontline starter, the inability of the Orioles front office to provide the team with a suitable leadoff hitter is a tradition that goes back several years. Ever since Brian Roberts started to have recurring injury issues in 2010, the name at the top of the lineup card has been a revolving door. Things are no different heading into the 2018 season.
It was announced at FanFest in January that not only would Tim Beckham be swapping positions with Manny Machado, but the former Tampa Bay Rays player would also become manager Buck Showalter’s preferred leadoff option. This, of course, is not a great idea.
Beckham boasts a career on-base percentage of .310, a 29.7% strikeout rate and a 6.2% walk rate. Those numbers sure don’t scream “table setter”. Expectations need to be tempered for the newly-anointed third baseman. He is a likely candidate for regression due to an inflated 20.6% home-run-to-fly-ball rate and .365 batting average on balls in play in 2017. Beckham will already be learning a foreign position. Asking him to ignite an offense by becoming a reliable on-base machine all of the sudden seems like a tall order.
“These games don’t count.” People on the internet like to chuck this reminder out quite a bit during Spring Training. But it stands to reason that a team would like to practice in the same way that they hope to play when the season gets underway. So, it shouldn’t be ignored that while Beckham did bat leadoff for the Orioles “A-team” right at the start of the spring, it has been Colby Rasmus that has taken over that job recently.
It’s not ideal, but Rasmus would probably be a better option at the top of the order than Beckham. The 31-year-old has a .311 career OBP, 26.7% strikeout rate and 8.8% walk rate. If you care about experience, Rasmus has just seven MLB games (20 at-bats) as a leadoff hitter under his belt. But it’s not like Beckham is a grizzled old vet in the top spot. He only has 53 career games (221 at-bats) there, most of which came last season.
Start ‘em young
The player that perhaps has the best hitter profile for the leadoff spot is a guy that may not even make the team. Chance Sisco has a career .390 OBP across all levels of the minors. Baseball America’s Kyle Glaser remarked that Sisco has “an impressive eye and strike-zone discipline, although his walks were down and strikeouts up this year at Triple-A.” Some of the regression could be due to the fact that he only just turned 23 years old. He still has some development to go. As he gets more comfortable at a level, his on-base abilities should return to their previous heights.
Austin Hays sure meets that “spark plug” description that many of the old school baseball people prefer in their leadoff hitters. But he also had a solid .370 OBP in his MiLB career. As the organization’s top hitting prospect, Hays profiles as a future number two or three in the lineup, but he could fit at the top for the time being.
Showalter has shown a tendency to “protect” his young hitters. Both Machado and Jonathan Schoop were buried down in the bottom third of the lineup while their careers got off the ground. Now, as established major leaguers, they find themselves in the more prominent offensive roles. Expect the same for Sisco and Hays. It wouldn’t be a shock to see either one leadoff at some point, but it likely won’t happen right out of the gate.
Joey Rickard, Craig Gentry and even Trey Mancini have led off for the Orioles in the past. If any of them do it again this season, there is probably something seriously weird going on, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility. Alex Presley, a minor league free agent signed by the O’s this season, has almost an entire season worth of MLB experience as a top of the order hitter. And Anthony Santander has to make the team if the O’s want to hold onto him. Why not lead off?
Of that entire slew, Gentry fits most naturally at number one. Even as a 34-year-old, he still has above-average speed, which traditionalists like. And he has a .334 career OBP, which is a tick above average. But getting on base at a decent rate is about the only real plus he brings to the offense. He doesn’t hit much and has little-to-no power. In all likelihood, he is stashed in Norfolk as a safety net.
Tried and true
Adam Jones is not a prototypical leadoff hitter, but he’s done it before. A lot, in fact. Over 163 career games batting first, Jones has slashed .274/.315/.443 with 29 home runs, 80 RBI, 36 walks and 117 strikeouts. Those don’t look like the numbers of a leadoff guy, but they aren’t bad.
The leadoff hitter is going to get more at-bats than anyone else on the team over an entire season. They need to be one of your team’s best hitters or else it will turn into a waste of opportunity for the players that follow in the order.
If you were to make a list of the Orioles hitters from best to worst right now, it would likely look something like this:
You could argue the ranking of the guys in the second half of that list, but you would be hard-pressed to change anything about those first three. There is no scenario in which Beckham is better with the bat than the first three. So, why give him, or Rasmus for that matter, more at-bats than the rest of them?
In fact, it remains to be seen if Sisco or Hays are even better than Beckham or Rasmus. If they are, which seems likely, then it makes even less sense to bat one of them at the top of the order while the other two slot into the eighth or ninth spot.
The Orioles don’t have an obvious leadoff hitter, but there are better options than the two guys that have occupied the spot early on in Spring Training.