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Try as they might, Orioles can't use out-of-position players as reason for league's worst defense

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

When the Orioles' woeful defense was brought up before Thursday's makeup game with the Philadelphia Phillies, Orioles manager Buck Showalter lamented the amount of players playing out of their ideal positions.

On a day when he rotated Trey Mancini from his regular spot in left field to first base, Chris Davis to Mark Trumbo's traditional designated hitter spot and Trumbo to right field, that case can certainly be made.

"It's been a challenge for us, obviously,” Showalter said. "It's been something that we really have been challenged with the last couple of seasons. Some of it injury-related, too. But nobody cares. It's where your depth should come in. It can. We're having to play some people somewhat out of position and take them out of what role you've tried to design for them.”

Yet upon a little digging, the out-of-position idea doesn't go very far to explain what has ailed the Orioles defensively and put them on pace for the worst defensive season of any team in recent memory.

Like many things related to their league-worst 26-67 start, it's the result of plenty of factors — roster construction, aging, poor performance — all of which a manager in front of a microphone in Showalter's position is best served staying away from.

But, Showalter mentioned Trumbo, Mancini, Danny Valencia and Tim Beckham as players, off-hand, who were out of position. When asked where he'd ideally play them, the list of positions was pretty much where they've lined up most of this year, save for Valencia's recent time in right field.

The ideal position for him?

"Third base, first base," Showalter said. "That's what the plan was coming in — and against left-handed pitching. But we've had to play him out of necessity."

Valencia has started 36 times at third base, once at first base, eight times as designated hitter and has made 11 starts in right field in the past few weeks.

"Who else?" Showalter asked. How about Trumbo?

"Mark, DH, play some first, play some right field — give a guy a day here or there. That's the idea coming in."

Trumbo has been the designated hitter 42 times, played first base three times and right field 14 times. What about Beckham, who has started at third base 36 times and second base three times?

"Third base, shortstop — capable of playing about everywhere really," Showalter said. “Timmy could play anywhere he wanted to. I think he'd be OK."

For Mancini, who has 69 starts in left field, 12 at first base, and one as the designated hitter, there was a curveball of sorts — once the two positions he's played most were mentioned.

"First base, left field — I actually think Trey, down the road, may profile more as a right fielder than a left fielder, in our ballpark especially. That's something we've talked about with him, down the road."

To end the exercise, Showalter joked that Adam Jones has reminded him he can also play shortstop and pitch. But in all the rest, there hasn't been much deviation from the original plan, to hear him tell it Thursday.

All that has led to the league's worst defense by almost any measure — their minus-87 defensive runs saved rates worst in the majors, according to FanGraphs. Since the stat began being tracked on the site in 2002, only nine teams have had worse seasons, with the 2005 Yankees at minus-120 being the worst. The Orioles have 69 games, including Thursday, to eclipse that.

Surely having a roster in which four players — Davis, Mancini, Trumbo and Valencia (plus Pedro Álvarez, when he was around) — are best suited for first base or designated hitter duties is limiting to a team defensively. But that's how these Orioles were built to begin with, and absent acknowledging that or calling out individual performances, saying players are out of position is a simple way to explain what has happened without taking much responsibility.

Some of the Orioles’ best defenders — Craig Gentry and Joey Rickard — have been relegated to bench roles and up-and-down roles, respectively. Gentry has been out several weeks with a rib injury. Jace Peterson hasn't established himself at any position, and Showalter said the loss of Steve Wilkerson, who was set for a utility role before an offseason drug suspension and is now out until August with an oblique injury, hurts as well. There are also the ripple effects of Manny Machado and Beckham swapping third base and shortstop, though that probably would have happened anyway once Beckham went down for two months with a core muscle injury that required surgery.

"Things change, because of whatever reason — someone not being here that you might have counted on," Showalter said.

"It's a challenge, but it's something that we've had that we've been able to overcome, but not for a long period of time."

jmeoli@baltsun.com

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