The Orioles may not be sounding an alarm, but all you need to know about their concern at third base was signaled with the insertion of veteran Alexi Casilla at the hot corner in Saturday’s lineup against the Toronto Blue Jays.
Yes, Casilla brings major league experience and manager Buck Showalter wanted to take a look at him after he was rehabbing a hamstring injury in Sarasota earlier this month, but how many games did the 30-year-old play at third base for Triple-A Norfolk this season you might ask?
In fact, Casilla had made just two career starts at third and appeared at the hot corner just 10 times in his eight major league seasons before Saturday’s game at Rogers Centre. But it reflects the level of uncertainty the Orioles face at the position as Casilla became the fourth different player to start there since the announcement of Chris Davis’ 25-game suspension on Sept. 12.
The concerns at third base have been very real since 2013 Gold Glove winner Manny Machado went down with a season-ending knee injury on Aug. 11, but the Orioles appeared to find an acceptable solution in Chris Davis before the slugger’s 25-game suspension was announced on Sept. 12. Since then, Showalter has shuffled candidates with the results being mixed at best.
Though the Orioles have been playing out the relatively-meaningless regular-season string since clinching the division title on Sept. 16, they’ve committed five errors in their last eight games at third base entering Saturday.
The switch-hitting Jimmy Paredes has shown offensive promise with a .308 average in 54 plate appearances, but the 25-year-old has also displayed poor hands and an erratic arm, committing three errors in 13 games and looking shaky on a number of other plays at third base. Showalter has given Paredes the most extensive playing time at third, but his defense has often led to him being pulled in the late innings.
Veteran Kelly Johnson has shown decent hands, but his throwing arm hasn’t inspired confidence to throw out speedier runners at first base. The left-handed hitter also sports a .215 average in time split among the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, and Orioles this season.
Considered the strongest defensive option on the current roster, Ryan Flaherty has even shown recent struggles at the hot corner with two errors in his last four starts at third base this past week. And though he’s hitting over .300 in the month of September, Flaherty’s appearance at third creates another hole at the bottom of the order — he’s a career .222 hitter with a .654 career on-base plus slugging percentage — to go with rookie second baseman Jonathan Schoop and one of Caleb Joseph and Nick Hundley behind the plate.
It’s unlikely that Casilla makes the postseason roster, but the simple fact that he’s getting a look at third base speaks volumes about Showalter’s lack of confidence in any of the candidates at the position.
The Orioles knew they wouldn’t be able to find an option with the all-around ability of Machado when he was lost for the season, but they appeared to be able to live with Davis’ solid defensive play while knowing the offensive upside he brings despite his .196 average in the 2014 regular season. But his suspension lasting until the ninth game of the postseason leaves the Orioles flapping in the wind at third for at least the American League Division Series and some of the AL Championship Series before Davis is an option.
None of their current options provide enough upside with the bat to endure such shaky defense and only Flaherty — if you’re willing to overlook the recent shakiness — appears to provide steady-enough defense to Showalter’s liking. That’s what makes the 2012 Rule 5 selection the most palatable option over Paredes, Johnson, or the recently-summoned Casilla until Davis can potentially return.
Looking for an answer since Machado crumpled to the ground on Aug. 11 and then again when Davis was banned on Sept. 12, the Orioles have yet to find a solution with the Division Series beginning in less than a week.
While many look at the Orioles’ league-leading home run total and improved pitching numbers, defense remains the heart of their success over the last three seasons. Baltimore ranks third in the AL in team ERA but only 10th in strikeouts, a simple reflection of how hurlers pitch to contact and how important the defense has been. Entering Saturday, the Orioles were tied for first in fielding percentage and had committed the second-fewest number of errors in the AL.
In October when such a premium is placed on pitching and defense in typically low-scoring games, the Orioles defense will need to be at its best as they begin a journey to try to win their first World Series since 1983.
You just hope the uncertainty at the hot corner doesn’t burn their chances.