Memorial Day is rapidly approaching, which brings the unofficial end of the mantra uttered countless times to explain an Orioles offense that continues to sputter over the first seven weeks of the 2014 season.
“It’s still early” doesn’t fly anymore as the season has passed the quarter pole and Baltimore ranks 13th in runs, 12th in on-base percentage, ninth in home runs, and eighth in slugging percentage in the American League. Of course, the Orioles’ free-swinging tendencies and 10th-ranked on-base percentage from a season ago made it clear that the lineup had its flaws, but no one could forecast such a dramatic power outage from a club that led the majors in long balls and was fourth in the AL in runs during the 2013 season.
Save for free-agent acquisition Nelson Cruz, whose 12 home runs are twice the output of any other player on the roster, the Orioles’ power outage has been felt up and down the lineup.
Chris Davis has only three home runs in 30 games after hitting a club-record 53 a season ago. Since returning from a strained oblique on May 11, the first baseman is hitting just .179 and has been out in front of nearly everything, evident by his four groundouts to the right side in Sunday’s loss to Kansas City, instead of waiting to drive the ball the other way like he does when at his best.
J.J. Hardy is without a long ball after hitting 77 in his first three seasons in Baltimore. Early-season back and hamstring issues appear to be in the rear-view mirror, but the All-Star shortstop has yet to find his usual power stroke.
Manny Machado still hasn’t hit a double — he hit a league-leading 51 last year — and has only one home run in his first 73 plate appearances after starting the season on the 15-day disabled list and completing his recovery from offseason knee surgery. The 21-year-old deserves the benefit of the doubt after a seven-month recovery from last September’s injury, but his .240 average in the second half last year reminds us that the third baseman is far from a finished product even when healthy.
Injuries have impacted all three, but the likes of Adam Jones and Nick Markakis have also tailed off in the power department in comparison to their career averages. Of course, the order hasn’t been helped by the elbow injury to catcher Matt Wieters, who was off to the best offensivee start of his career prior to being placed on the disabled list earlier this month.
So, what is manager Buck Showalter to do?
Short of taking a closer look at alternative options at second base, catcher, and left field (or designated hitter if the Orioles elect to have Cruz play in the outfield), there isn’t much to be done except continuing to run the aforementioned players out there on a daily basis.
For some perspective, Davis hit only five homers through May 19 of the 2012 season before ultimately hitting 33, a reminder that a hot stretch or two would put any of these players back on a favorable pace in the power department. In Davis’ case, reaching 53 home runs was always going to be extremely difficult, but he’s still more than capable of posting big numbers in 2014 despite the slow start.
The club’s poor on-base percentage and inability to work counts are valid criticisms and a conscious effort should be made to enhance those areas, but only marginal improvement should be expected when you’re talking about veteran hitters who’ve carried a given approach — flawed as it may be — throughout their careers. Free swingers don’t suddenly transform themselves into selective hitters at the big-league level unless you want to stunt their biggest strengths in the process.
If Showalter wants to change the mindset of veterans who might be pressing, a shakeup of the order might be a simple way to rejuvenate a group clearly capable of much better. Here’s only one example of what could be done:
LF Delmon Young/Steve Pearce
C Steve Clevenger
2B Jonathan Schoop
Such an order would provide Davis with a better on-base percentage option in front of him while also taking some pressure off Machado as he tries to get his 2014 season on track. Showalter also prefers keeping his lineup balanced with right-handed and left-handed hitters to make it more difficult for opposing managers to match up with their bullpen arms late in games.
This alignment would call for Young or Pearce to be in the lineup regularly, which is preferred if the Orioles are to continue carrying both on the 25-man roster. Neither has played much since Davis’ return from the DL.
Are those suggested changes dramatic? Of course not, but there is only so much you can try as a manager when so many core members of your lineup are sputtering. Staying the course sounds cliched, but it’s the only real choice in trusting that proven track records will ultimately prevail over the results of the first 42 games of the season — as concerning as they might be.
Hitting the “Lough” point