The mere mention of a utility infielder as part of a winter shopping list can make the eyes of the most engaged fans glaze over or roll into the tops of their heads. The national media isn’t chasing those rumors. It’s never as important or interesting as starting pitching or a bat.
The Orioles had three spots to fill in their rotation and they wanted a left-handed hitting outfielder. Those areas were marked as priorities. But they never downplayed the need for a versatile player who could handle all of the infield positions and maybe move to the outfield in an emergency.
Unable to reach agreement on an upgrade as camp closed, the Orioles ventured outside their roster comfort zone by omitting a true utility type as they returned to Baltimore. Danny Valencia would be a backup at the corner infield spots with the ability to play left and right field if needed. Tim Beckham could move to shortstop or second base if one of the regulars was unavailable for a day or needed a breather. Jonathan Schoop could slide over to short.
Losing Schoop to an oblique injury was the 100 pound fly in the ointment. Beckham’s groin injury, which forced him out of last night’s game, is a prop plane.
Beckham, Elgelb Vielma and Luis Sardiñas have made starts at second in Schoop’s absence. The Orioles prefer to keep Beckham at third, though it’s the position where he has the least amount of experience. Vielma was good defensively, but couldn’t offer much at the plate. Sardiñas hit a game-tying home run in Detroit, but he’s 2-for-17 and has made a few physical and mental errors.
Now you know why manager Buck Showalter always promoted Ryan Flaherty as such an important part of the team despite his 25th-man status and low batting average.
The Orioles came extremely close to signing Flaherty to a minor league deal at the end of camp, but the Braves swooped in with a major league offer and he began last night leading the National League with a .362 average. No one saw it coming, including the Braves. Anything he offers in the batter’s box is a bonus.
Showalter says that a player like Flaherty is worth his weight in gold, but the Orioles only dangled minor league offers in front of him, which first led him to sign with the Phillies before they released him. He would be starting at second base with Schoop on the disabled list - and probably not leading the American League in hitting.
I kept endorsing Ryan Goins throughout the winter and the Orioles put together a major league offer, but he lost patience while waiting for it to go through the proper channels and agreed to a minor league deal with the Royals.
Goins is only 6-for-29, but most of his career starts have come at second base and he’s made appearances at every infield position, along with left and right field. And he bats from the left side. And the farm system isn’t overflowing with infield prospects.
The club’s decision to operate again with a three-man bench is open to criticism, and it’s actually been two while Trey Mancini recovers from a knee injury. Valencia started at third base last night against Indians right-hander Carlos Carrasco, though the Orioles signed him for his ability to mash left-handers. Beckham started at second, though they’d rather ... you know.
And now Beckham is hurt, too.
Valencia struck out on three pitches after back-to-back singles by Adam Jones and Chris Davis to open the second inning, but Chance Sisco delivered an RBI single. He struck out again on three pitches in the fourth, but doubled to the base of the fence in center field with one out in the seventh.
Mancini should return tonight and the Orioles really need him. Flaherty might scoff at his .280 average, lowered after he struck out last night as a pinch-hitter, but check out the others from last night’s lineup prior to first pitch:
Machado should have a cameo on Sesame Street. “One of these things is not like the other ...”
The Orioles are batting .215. The bench consisted of Sardiñas, catcher Caleb Joseph and, we later found out, Mancini. We weren’t told of his availability, but figured it out in the eighth. Beckham moved atop the order and Gentry slid down to the bottom. Sisco made his fourth start in five games.
There’s only so much shaking up that a manager can do in this situation.
Mancini will return to the leadoff spot, as he should, but it would be more ideal to lower him - even if second - and employ someone who’s a more natural top-of-the-order hitter. Also part of the shopping list over the winter, but signing Colby Rasmus to a minor league deal and breaking camp with him only provided the left-handed bat for the outfield until his hip injury.
Cedric Mullins could become a leadoff option for the Orioles, a switch-hitter with speed who resides atop the order at Double-A Bowie, but he needs to play every day and it probably wouldn’t happen here with Mancini’s return. Hamstring injuries limited him to 76 games last summer in his first year in the Eastern League.
Fans calling for Austin Hays as the everyday right fielder should note his .232 average at Bowie, though he tripled and scored last night. He’s still working on certain things, including the ability to better defend himself against breaking balls. It’s part of the development process.