If a healthy Brian Roberts is batting atop the Orioles’ lineup, they have one of the best leadoff hitters in the game to ignite their team. If Roberts is out - and his status remains very much in question for 2012 - the Orioles don’t have a bonafide leadoff hitter in that spot.
Orioles leadoff hitters didn’t rate very highly among American League teams in 2011:
* Runs - ranked tied for eighth with 92
* Batting average - ranked 14th and last at .240
* On-base average - ranked 14th and last at .290
* OPS - ranked ninth at .685
* Stolen bases - ranked 13th with 18
The Orioles have not acquired a true leadoff hitter this offseason, so which Oriole is best suited to bat first for this team right now?
A lot of fans suggest using Nick Markakis in the leadoff spot due to his career .365 on-base average and his ability to take pitches and work the count. Here is something you may not know: Markakis has never batted leadoff in a big league game.
Still, he could likely handle it just fine, although that would mean you would not have a base stealer hitting atop the order and you would be taking a player that has hit in run-producing spots before out of one.
Robert Andino hit just .239 with a .299 OBP in 128 plate appearances batting leadoff last season. J.J. Hardy spent quite a bit of time batting leadoff in 2011, but with just a .295 OBP, and Hardy just doesn’t walk much. Nolan Reimold is a possible candidate, but has just 27 career plate appearances in that spot in the order with a .333 OBP. Endy Chavez has just a .299 career OBP at leadoff but could steal some bases from that spot.
Of the players that figure to make the team, Wilson Betemit has the best leadoff stats and they are really good, but in a very small sample size. In 76 career plate appearances batting first, Betemit is batting .406 with a .461 OBP. But he batted just once in that spot last year and has spent most of his career hitting sixth, seventh or eighth.
If you want a real longshot candidate to bat leadoff, how about outfielder Matt Angle, who made the majors for the first time last year? Two things make this a real longshot. First, Angle has to make the team. Second, he has to get regular or semi-regular playing time.
If he makes the team, Angle is a guy with plenty of leadoff experience in his pro career. He has a minor league career OBP of .372 and last year stole 38 of 42 bases between Triple-A and the majors. But Angle hit just .177 in 79 at-bats with the Orioles late last season.
But even when struggling to produce a good average, Angle had a .320 on-base percentage in 78 big league plate appearances last year. He walked 11 times and stole seven of eight bases, scoring 10 runs in 17 starts last season batting first.
Before you totally dismiss Angle, consider this fact: He appeared in 31 Orioles games last year and the team went 20-11 in those contests.
Right now, the Orioles just don’t have a proven player in the leadoff spot, at least not one with major league success short of Betemit’s 76 plate appearances. Maybe someone will emerge to hold down the fort there or maybe it will be a season where Buck Showalter rotates players there and goes with a hot hand atop the Orioles’ order.
Some probably don’t consider it that big of an issue as the leadoff hitter often leads off in just one inning per game.
But it sure would be nice for Roberts to prove his health and reclaim that spot.
Worth noting: Jeremy Guthrie, who is now with the Colorado Rockies, has pitched in 20 games in his career against National League teams. He has a record of 6-7 and ERA of 3.62 with a WHIP of 1.15 in his career in interleague games.
New Orioles pitcher Jason Hammel is 5-3 with a 4.48 ERA over 10 starts the last three years for the Rockies against the AL. He went 1-2 with a 6.65 ERA in four interleague starts last summer.
New Orioles relief pitcher Matt Lindstrom is 1-0 with six saves and a 4.85 ERA in 27 career interleague games covering 26 innings. Lindstrom, who has a career strikeout rate of 7.2 batters per every nine innings, has a rate of just 4.8 strikeouts per nine in games against AL opponents.