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Designating a hitter: Orioles options at DH

The Orioles certainly aren’t lacking in players that fit the physical description of a designated hitter. Who Baltimore selects as the primary DH could say a lot about the club’s strategy moving forward.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Baltimore Orioles Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

While the Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter era came to a close at the end of last season, the Orioles rebuild didn’t officially begin until pitchers and catchers reported on Tuesday. The very first part of Baltimore’s future has kicked off in Sarasota, Florida, and that’s pretty exciting.

Throughout this spring, Orioles fans will notice a plethora of changes in how executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias and manager Brandon Hyde conduct business. We’ve heard a lot about the long-overdue introduction of analytics to the club, and just about everyone is eager to see how those figures could impact several struggling members in the organization.

Hidden behind the sabermetric headliner, several other modifications will present themselves in 2019. As the Orioles assemble a roster and a starting lineup to head up north with, we’ll learn a lot about what the club values. How much emphasis will be placed on on-base percentage and stolen bases, and will defense take priority over keeping a certain bat in the lineup. If a greater emphasis is placed on defense, how will the Orioles handle the designated hitter spot?

As currently constructed, the Orioles roster contains several designated hitter candidates. It’s also important to point out that, yes, anyone can get a start at DH, but not everyone can play the field. Well, I guess anyone can play the field, but not everyone can play it well.

Mark Trumbo led the team last year with 65 starts at designated hitter. As we all know by now in Birdland, Trumbo can no longer play the outfield. He’s not the first or second best option at first base either. If Trumbo is in the lineup, he’s going to be the DH.

Trumbo, who made 19 starts in right field a season ago, is due to make $13.5 million in the final year of his contract. He’s still recovering from knee surgery, and it’s unknown whether he’ll be ready for opening day. That contract, paired with a lingering injury, makes it nearly impossible to trade the California native right now. If the Birds did deal Trumbo, they’d likely have to kick in a good bit of cash, and it’s difficult to picture a quality prospect in return. The Orioles will likely hold onto Trumbo until the trade deadline, and hope that he’ll prove he still holds some value.

The DH spot really comes down to two questions— Will Trumbo be healthy? And would the Orioles write him into the lineup consistently until July?

The depth chart on the Orioles official website lists Trumbo as the designated hitter and Trey Mancini as the second option at DH. Mancini, in the context of the Orioles roster, still holds a good deal of potential. After a slow start, the 26-year-old slashed .276/.307/.484 during the second half of 2018.

Mancini served as the DH 16 times last year, made 40 starts at first base and 94 in left field. While no one views Mancini as a plus defender in left, Trumbo and first baseman Chris Davis’s presence on the roster block him from more starts at DH or first. If Elias and Hyde no longer wish to continue the Mancini Outfield Project, the cluster could finally turn into a true logjam.

Chris Davis and his $92 million contract have dropped a pretty strong anchor at first base. While Davis no longer rates as an above average first baseman, he’ll likely play the field during a majority of his appearances. Davis started 115 games at first base, while serving as the DH 12 times a year ago. However, if his offensive woes continue, there’s a chance Davis finally sees a decline in playing time.

Adam Jones won’t be around to take a break from the field, and Pedro Alvarez, Tim Beckham, Danny Valencia and Colby Rasmus are all gone. A lot of those guys already feel like a truly distant memory.

The Orioles’ recent signing of Eric Young Jr. only expands the outfield competition. However, if Young were to earn a starting job, it would show that the club values defense over offense at this time. As Paul Folkemer pointed out in Tuesday’s Bird Droppings, “That a 33-year-old with a lifetime .643 OPS could even be considered for a starting role speaks volumes about the lack of talent on the team right now.”

If Young or Joey Rickard earn a starting job, Mancini and DJ Stewart could require starts at DH. Once the trade deadline passes, Mancini and Stewart could replace Trumbo at DH while Austin Hays and Yusniel Diaz make their way to Baltimore.

Few, if any, teams enter the season thinking “we need to fill a need at DH.” The Orioles certainly have enough hitters capable of filling the position, it’s just a matter of who will do the honors. Competitions in the rotation, outfield and middle of the infield will dominate the headlines this spring. The DH will sort itself out once Trumbo’s health and the corner outfield spots become more clear.

The days of Nelson Cruz, Davis and Trumbo leading the league in home runs are long gone. Will the Orioles have a primary DH in 2019? If so, who will it be? These are the questions that emerge in February. Hey, at least we’re talking baseball.