Whatever the return for shortstop Manny Machado in the coming hours, days or weeks, the Orioles will be focused in part on improving a defense that has been in steady decline for the past three seasons.
It’s become a familiar refrain, but executing the plan has proven to be as challenging as stringing together wins.
Team officials vowed again to make defense a priority over the winter, but the Orioles moved Platinum Glove winner Machado to shortstop and put Tim Beckham at third base, where his resume included only five major league starts at the position.
They wanted to upgrade right field and gave Colby Rasmus a minor league deal, but he was injured and left the team after only 18 games, intensifying the spin rate of the revolving door.
Danny Valencia was signed to back up at the corner infield spots and mash left-handed pitching, but he became the starter at third base while Beckham recovered from core muscle surgery. He’s also started 10 games in right field, where he made a nice sliding catch last night in foul territory but also got turned around on a fly ball that landed behind him for a double.
Mark Trumbo was in right field tonight, making his 15th start of the season. The Orioles signed Jace Peterson as a utility infielder, but he started in left field for the sixth time after making four starts in right.
Pedro Álvarez returned to the organization in spring training, signing another minor league deal, and made the club while Trumbo went on the disabled list. Left-handed power bat for the designated hitter slot, emergency corner infielder. Except Álvarez was forced to start five games at third base in Beckham’s absence.
Data provided by FanGraphs showed the Orioles ranked last in the majors defensively with a minus-33.5 rating heading into tonight’s game against the Phillies. Their minus-87 DRS (defensive runs saved) and minus-32.5 UZR (ultimate zone rating) also put them at the bottom.
The Orioles committed 54 errors to place them 14th in the majors and their .984 fielding percentage was 16th, but those stats ignore double plays that aren’t turned and balls in the air and on the ground that don’t result in outs.
“It’s been a challenge for us, obviously,” said manager Buck Showalter. “It’s been something that we really have been challenged with the last couple of seasons. Some of it injury-related, too. But nobody cares. That’s where your depth should come in. But having to play some people somewhat out of position and take them out of what role you tried to design for them, a lot of things change because of whatever reason, someone not being here that you might have counted on.”
Showalter mentioned super utility player Steve Wilkerson, who made it to the majors following his 50-game suspension and strained his oblique after appearing in seven games.
“Wilkerson was a loss for us,” Showalter said. “That was a tough one. The kid worked that hard and everything he had to deal with to get here. It’s going to be in August. It’s still a ways away. He’s still pretty sore. He had a pretty bad one.
“It’s obvious that our defense has been a challenge for us and a lot of things that don’t necessarily show up in the error column.”
A team that grew accustomed to having multiple Gold Glove finalists every season - including six in 2013 - must resort to playing multiple guys out of position. Showalter can’t recall doing it with such a large group.
“It’s been tough,” he said. “Just have had to do it, whether it be Valencia or Trumbo, even with Tim, even with really Trey (Mancini). It’s a challenge. But it’s something we’ve had that we’ve been able to overcome, but not for a long period of time.
“I remember sitting in this room and asked what makes you think Steve Pearce can play second base. Only one way to find out. We didn’t have to do it for very long. It was kind of, hold the fort down, there was something coming there.”
Showalter was asked where, ideally, he’d play Valencia.
“Third base, first base. That’s what the plan was coming in,” he said. “And against left-handed pitching. But we’ve had to play him out of necessity.”
“DH, play some first, play some right field,” Showalter said. “Give a guy a day here or there. That was the idea coming in.”
Beckham, who made a diving backhanded stop and throw in the second inning to rob Aaron Altherr and prevent a run from scoring?
“Third base, shortstop,” Showalter replied. “Capable of playing anywhere, really. Timmy, you could play anywhere you wanted to and I think he’d be OK.”
Except for Valencia’s appearances in right field, the preferred spots seem to match up with how the players have been used. But a team that’s 41 games below .500 is going to have issues spread across the board.
Mancini replaced Chris Davis at first base tonight, going back to his natural position. The slump continued, however, with his groundout in the second stranded two runners in scoring position following a pair of Phillies errors.
“First base, left field,” Showalter said. “I actually think Trey down the road may profile more as a right fielder than a left fielder, in our ballpark especially. Something we’ve talked about with him down the road.”
Showalter has an idea of how he’d replace Machado at shortstop if a trade goes down.
“Yeah, I do,” he said. “I better know.”
It could involve more shuffling of players like a deck of cards if the replacement doesn’t arrive from outside the organization. (The trade better turn up an ace, but I digress ...)
“Manny went to a different position when he came up here and he did real well,” Showalter said, referencing the move to third base that began with pregame drills at Double-A Bowie. “Sometimes, you change positions and do even better at another position, so we try to keep that in mind, too. Chris was a third baseman when he first came up.”
This isn’t the ideal route to take as opposed to the stability that comes from finding proven defenders at their natural positions.
“It’s always a priority,” Showalter said. “It should be. And especially with any acquisition, whether it be amateur or professional. As much as balls are leaving the ballpark today, when they stay in the park, you need to try to catch them. And you really need to turn two outs with one batted ball.
“It’s big. But that always should be something you look at when you evaluate a player hard. That’s one of the first things I ask on guys down below. When they’re not hitting, they’re making that adjustment to major league pitching, can they impact the club defensively? That’s always been a priority for me.”
Meanwhile, the Phillies loaded the bases in the third inning and Jorge Alfaro scored on Carlos Santana’s single to break a scoreless tie. César Hernández scored on Nick Williams’ fielder’s choice grounder.
Update: Alfaro’s leadoff home run in the sixth gave the Phillies a 5-0 lead. Kevin Gausman left with two on and no outs, the 12 hits allowed a career high.
Chance Sisco’s single with one out in the fifth is the only hit off Nick Pivetta.
Update II: Machado’s infield hit in the sixth scored Beckham, who led off with a double, and back-to-back home runs by Mancini and Peterson in the seventh cut the lead to 5-4. Mancini, in a 2-for-27 slump before the at-bat, hit a two-run shot off Pivetta. Peterson followed with a home run off Tommy Hunter.