With news today that Nick Markakis will be sidelined for approximately four weeks with a broken hamate bone in his hands, it is time for the Orioles and manager Buck Showalter to get a bit creative in how they handle the outfield situation over the next month. Markakis joins Nolan Reimold on disabled list, which means that two-thirds of the O’s opening day OF is currently on the shelf with injuries. Reimold is reportedly “progressing” from his neck injury and reported to Sarasota on Tuesday to begin the rehab process. However, even if Reimold is able to avoid any additional setbacks, it seems very unlikely that he would be back in an Oriole uniform in less than three weeks. At this point, the conservative assumption is that the Orioles will be without both Reimold and Markakis through the end of June.
The Orioles do not have any surefire backup plans in the minors, nor is 4th outfielder End Chavez playing well enough to warrant a starting role in Reimold and Markakis’ absence. Xavier Avery will almost certainly be called up to take Markakis’ roster spot. After a hot start, Avery struggled during his previous call up with the Orioles. His pitch recognition and ability to lay off of the inside breaking ball are still suspect and not the sort of issues that can be easily corrected in one week’s time. Chavez and Avery might seem like the “obvious answers” in right and left field, but that doesn’t make them the correct ones.
The Orioles roster is constructed as such that, with the exceptions of Markakis in right, Adam Jones in center, Matt Wieters behind the plate and JJ Hardy at short, no other player on the team is really locked into a particular position or starting role. With Markakis out, that means the Orioles have the ability to rotate players among 5 positions and 1 designated hitter spot. They should take advantage of that flexibility as much as possible.
Wilson Betemit, Ryan Flaherty, and Steve Tolleson should be given playing time in right and left field as long as they show an ability to play average defense in the outfield. Tolleson has hit well so far with the Orioles, including producing several loud outs that have kept his batting average at a modest level. Tolleson is a third baseman by trade, but I’d like to see Buck try to get his bat in the lineup as much as possible, regardless of position, and see if he can stick. There is no guarantee he can, but now is as good of a time as any to find out.
Really, that’s going to be the most important aspect of the next month. Between Avery, Chavez, Betemit, Tolleson, Flaherty, Robert Andino, Chris Davis, Mark Reynolds, Nick Johnson, and Ronny Paulino, the O’s have ten players to fill six offensive positions. The team needs to ride the hot bats in that group, if there are any, and get them out when they don’t perform. The O’s need to put their best nine offensive players out on the field more often than not, even if that means playing a player or two out of position. The team already leads the Majors in errors with guys playing their natural positions, so having players out of position really shouldn’t be too much of a concern. When, or rather “if”, Brian Roberts returns from the disabled list in the next two weeks, the worst performing player needs to be removed from the roster, regardless of position or seniority. If that player is someone like Endy Chavez, then so be it.
Roberts returning might actually free up the Orioles to explore even more creative lineup options. Right now, Chavez, Andino, and Avery are the only three obvious leadoff options for Buck Showalter. Even a much diminished Brian Roberts is the best leadoff option amongst that bunch. Roberts in the lineup eliminates the urge to play Avery or Chavez regularly, simply for their ability to leadoff. He also opens up things defensively for the O’s. Andino has played outfield on occasion in a pinch. With Roberts playing regularly at second, that would allow the team to occasionally use Andino in the outfield if needed or third base, depending on who is swinging a hot bat at the moment.
Don’t get me wrong – I am not pushing the panic button just because Markakis is sidelined for four weeks. In the big picture, losing Nick doesn’t drastically decrease the O’s offensive potential. In addition, the team’s success will still ultimately lie on how well their starting pitchers perform. Even so, with the offense currently struggling as is, the Orioles should not rely on the “obvious” answers of Chavez and Avery in the outfield, when there might be more effective players to use to fill those holes.