Heath Bintliff: Orioles not cleaning up

Everywhere I turn, it seems the Orioles are setting some new standard for futility. Today, it is on the offensive side and a spot in the order that a couple of offseason signings were supposed to upgrade: cleanup hitter.

Designated hitter Vladimir Guerrero was signed because he was a proven cleanup hitter, a run producer with a long track record. Guerrero, along with first baseman Derrek Lee, were to provide lineup protection, protection that was (at least according to many fans) to allow right fielder Nick Markakis to finally fulfill his true potential because opposing hurlers were not going to be able to pitch around him anymore. Obviously, this plan didn’t work out like it was drawn up.

Lee’s bat never came around, Guerrero is having the worst year of his career. Markakis is on his way to what will easily be his worst year at the plate. So much for veteran presence.

(By the way, I would also like to point out that neither Lee nor Guerrero brought back a package of prospects at the trading deadline, another perceived benefit to signing the pair of veterans. Lee brought back first baseman Aaron Baker, a guy who projects as an organizational player but has little chance to help the big club. So much for that idea.)

WIth Guerrero’s bat short-circuited and penciled into the lineup as the cleanup hitter for most of the season, the offensive output from Baltimore’s No. 4 hitters is at historic lows.

Here are the 10 worst seasons from the cleanup spot in Oriole history (since the advent of the DH) sorted in terms of OPS+ (a measure that compares a hitter’s on-base plus slugging numbers against average offensive levels for the rest of the league):

2009 0.711 90
2011 0.700 95
1997 0.756 96
1977 0.729 101
1992 0.742 101
2000 0.782 101
2002 0.728 103
1990 0.721 106
1993 0.786 106
2005 0.791 107

Our proven cleanup hitter, the primary slugger in the No. 4 spot for Baltimore this season, has contributed mightily to one of the worst productions from Oriole cleanup hitters over the last 38 seasons.

In terms of raw OPS, it is the worst output from a collection of Oriole cleanup hitters, at least so far. Center fielder Adam Jones threatens to improve that mark before season’s end. In terms of OPS+, only 2009 was worse when a combination of designated hitter Aubrey Huff and Markakis set the team record for cleanup futility.

But the scenario for 2011 is quite similar to 2009. Huff, coming off a career year, was given the role of cleanup hitter and then-manager Dave Trembley would not remove him from it, no matter how much he struggled. Buck Showalter has done the same thing with Guerrero, only recently dropping him in the order from fourth to fifth. You could make an argument to drop him further.

None of it means much now. The season is lost and has been lost for some time. But Showalter’s devotion and deference to veteran players and their past resume even when there is strong evidence that the player is hurting the team is troubling, especially on a team where young and raw players will be the ones who will ultimately lead Baltimore back to a winning record.

Baseball is not a static game. The abilities and values of players are always changing. if a manager isn’t willing to see that and make the tough decisions, it’s awfully hard for him to be a winning manager. Let’s hope this is not a blind spot for Showalter going forward.

Heath Bintliff blogs about the Orioles at Dempsey’s Army. His ruminations about the Birds appear as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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