It's never too early to make predictions.
We're about midway through spring training and just under three weeks away from Opening Day, and the Baltimore Orioles have the fourth-best record in the American League at 9-4. That record, in large part, is due to a strong offensive display the team has routinely put on. Through the team's first 13 games, the Orioles have batted .304 and scored 96 runs.
There are many players on the O's squad having strong springs, such as right fielder Nick Markakis and shortstop J.J. Hardy. The team is hoping that its offensive attack can remain strong throughout the regular season and into the playoffs, should Baltimore make it that far.
One key to a strong offensive approach is building a deep and quality lineup that can get the most out of a team's hitter while also paying attention to who the opposing pitcher is on that given day.
The Orioles open the season in Baltimore against the Boston Red Sox, and though the Sox haven't officially named an Opening Day starting pitcher, manager John Farrell alluded to the fact that he intends to keep his spring rotation the same going into the regular season, meaning that left-hander Jon Lester would line up to get the Opening Day nod, a privilege he has been given on previous occasions.
Since Lester is a lefty, the O's Opening Day lineup may look a little bit different than what they would field on most nights, as manager Buck Showalter may choose to sit certain players against tough lefties throughout the season. Newcomer David Lough is a left-handed hitter, and though he hasn't historically had trouble against left-handed pitchers, Showalter could opt to fill out the lineup card in more creative ways in order to give the O's a better chance to win with a strong offensive attack.
With that said, expect the Opening Day lineup for the Birds to look something like this:
- Nick Markakis, RF
- Manny Machado, 3B
- Adam Jones, CF
- Chris Davis, 1B
- Nelson Cruz, LF
- Matt Wieters, C
- J.J. Hardy, SS
- Delmon Young, DH
- Jonathan Schoop, 2B
That's right, I included Schoop on the Opening Day roster. I believe Schoop is making a really strong impression this spring and will convince Showalter, general manager Dan Duquette and Co. to stick him on the 25-man roster to begin the season.
Markakis is currently the O's best option at leadoff, and though he's not the fastest guy on the team, he's arguably the best guy on the squad at pitch recognition, as well as being a top on-base guy. If he can return to his old form of bring a doubles machine, then he'll be a great leadoff man for the O's.
Speaking of doubles machine, expect to see Machado batting second on Opening Day as long as he's healthy by then. Machado led the AL in doubles last season with 51, and a doubles hitter like that is exactly what a team wants in the 2-slot in the lineup. Sure, his OBP needs some work, but that'll come with age and experience (along with less doubles and more home runs).
No one should be surprised with the third and fourth slots in the lineup. The only time you'll see them change is when one of those guys needs to sit, or the O's are facing a righty instead of a lefty. Jones and Davis are the team's two best all-around hitters. They both hit for average, drive in runs and hit plenty of homers.
Cruz will likely be batting fifth most of the time, as he was brought in to help provide solid protection for Jones and Davis as well as fattening up the lineup. Don't be surprised if he's playing left field more times than not against left-handed pitchers, as Showalter may want to get an extra righty bat into the designated hitter role.
Batting sixth, Wieters could be slotted in front of Hardy for the simple fact that he can hit right-handed really well. Last season, the tall catcher hit .282 with 11 homers against lefties, compared to .214 with 11 homers against righties. The funny thing is, he had less than half the at-bats against lefties as he did righties (163 to 360, respectively).
Following Wieters will be Hardy, and though Hardy should probably be hitting in front of Wieters on most nights, he'll likely be providing protection to Wieters against lefties. Hardy is no slouch at the plate, hitting 22 or more homers for the Birds each of the last three seasons, so he'll help deliver serious pop in the bottom third of the order.
Remember when I mentioned Showalter potentially wanting to get an extra right-handed bat into the lineup on days where the team faces a left-handed starter? Delmon Young could be that bat, as he has a career average of .303 against lefties and a career OBP of .341 to accompany that already strong number. If he has a good spring the rest of the way, he could play his way into the O's plans.
And in the final slot in the lineup, Schoop may be a surprise to some, but he's certainly making a case to be the O's second baseman to start the season.
The youngster bulked up over the winter and has been tearing the cover off the ball this spring, batting .500 (9-18) with three doubles, one homer and five RBI. And that's not including the two homers he hit in each of the team's intrasquad games before spring exhibition games started.
When the O's face a right-handed starter, expect to see Lough in the lineup, batting in either the top two spots or bottom third of the order and playing left field, which would force Cruz to a DH role and whoever is the primary DH against lefties (in this case, Young) onto the bench. Lough's speed and defensive ability make him an asset for the team, and he's no slouch with the bat either, as he hit .286 in 96 games last year for the Kansas City Royals
With a lineup like that, the O's certainly look to make a lot of noise in the AL East this season. As an O's fan, expect to see plenty of runs being scored, balls being launched out of the park and, most importantly, excitement.