Talking cleanup hitters and minor league shortstops (Duquette quote added)

Here is an obvious statement: The Orioles need more production out of the No. 4 spot in their batting order this year. The Orioles got 65 RBIs out of that batting order position last year to rank dead last in the American League.

By comparison, the Yankees and Red Sox rated first and second in the AL in four-hole RBIs with 118 and 116, respectively.

We all know the Orioles don’t have a legit cleanup batter on the team or that feared slugger that many fans ask about. This could be a season where several different batters take their shots in that spot and/or Buck Showalter goes with the hot hand there or the best matchup there against that night’s opposing starter.

But I think Adam Jones is the best choice for that spot at least at the start of the year. In a small sample size, 58 career at-bats hitting fourth, Jones has a .942 OPS. Most of those at-bats came last year when he had 47 at-bats hitting fourth over 13 starts and he went 18-for-47 (.383) with three homers and five RBIs. He had a slugging percentage of .638 and OPS of 1.072.

I see Jones as a player that is learning to handle clutch spots, like late-game situations where a big hit is needed. I think he would welcome the challenge and should get a shot there.

Meanwhile, we now have just over two weeks to go before the Orioles’ minor league teams begin play. The Double-A Bowie Baysox open up at home Thursday, April 5 and the Single-A Frederick Keys open at home the next night. Manny Machado will be playing shortstop for one of those clubs, but which one?

Also, will Jonathan Schoop be playing alongside him at second base or will Schoop be at shortstop playing for the club where Manny is not?

The Orioles may want to spend some of the early portion of this year seeing both Schoop and Machado starting at short. If that proves true, it may not be a safe assumption that Machado goes to Bowie and Schoop to Frederick. It’s possible it could be the other way around.

While Machado is the higher-rated prospect of the two, Schoop makes a few top 100 lists as well and is the slightly older and more experienced player. Plus Schoop’s offensive stats were better than Machado’s with Frederick last season.

Schoop has played 258 career games to Machado’s 110 and he is nine months older. I think one scenario that might be worth thinking about is to have the pair play short for different teams in the first half of the year and then join forces for the second half in Double-A to gain more experience together.

However it ends up, they remain the club’s two best position player prospects and should be fun to watch during the 2012 season. Just be sure to double check which player will be at which ballpark.

Update: I had a conversation this afternoon with Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette about the Orioles’ minor leagues and will publish many of his comments tomorrow, but he did indicate during our interview that Machado and Schoop would start at different teams this year with each starting at shortstop.

“The players that can play shortstop should play shortstop as long as they possibly can. I think both of them can play shortstop and I think that they develop more value for the major league team if they play shortstop longer,” Duquette said.

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