Orioles' offseason holes to fill include balancing batting order with better left-handed options

This postseason has shown the importance of having balanced lineups, not only with a mixture of players who can do different things, but also a combination of hitters from both sides of the plate.

Along with reworking the starting rotation, balancing the lineup might be the Orioles’ biggest challenge this offseason.

The past few years, the team has gone into the offseason looking to improve its on-base capabilities in order to take advantage of its home-run power.

That will again be an area the Orioles will have to improve upon. This past season, the Orioles had a .312 on-base percentage, worse than the .317 mark they posted in 2016.

But by the end of the 2017 season, the Orioles had just one left-handed bat in the starting lineup on a regular basis – first baseman Chris Davis. It was evident that hurt the club’s offense as right-handed pitching feasted on the Orioles offense through September and October.

On Opening Day, the Orioles had three left-handed hitters in their starting lineup as platoon batters Seth Smith and Hyun Soo Kim manned the corner outfield positions, along with Davis.

Smith’s patience at the plate made him the team’s Opening Day leadoff hitter, but his season was up and down. So he didn’t offer the consistency down the stretch that a part-time player should until he was benched for good in September.

As for Kim, he was never able to build on a season in which he led the team in on-base percentage in 2016. His playing time in left field dwindled as rookie Trey Mancini emerged at that position to the point where he almost completely disappeared by midseason. Kim was traded to the Phillies at the nonwaiver deadline.

That left the Orioles with few left-handed replacements in September. (And remember that the Orioles were just one game out of the second American League wild-card spot as late as Sept. 6). Smith hit just .125 in September before he was benched for right-handed hitting rookie Austin Hays.

And the only other left-handed hitter who received any significant at-bats was September call-up Pedro Álvarez, but that took benching Mark Trumbo to free up the designated hitter spot. Trumbo hit .170 against right-handed pitching in September.

Catcher in waiting Chance Sisco, another left-handed hitter, also saw more regular at-bats in the season’s final weeks.

All in all, the Orioles hit just .222 against right-handed pitching in September and October, last in the AL and 29th out of the 30 major league clubs. That kind of number – bad starting pitching aside – would be enough to kill any postseason hopes.

The Los Angeles Dodgers, who had all but wrapped up the National League West, were the only team worse with a .221 average. The Orioles’ 18 homers against righties in September and October were fewest in the AL and tied for 28th out of the 30 major league clubs.

Manager Buck Showalter mentioned it many times during the Orioles’ September slide that his club was facing good pitching down the stretch, and much of that was right-handed pitching. In the Orioles’ mid-September road trip to Cleveland, Toronto and New York – a stretch in which they lost eight of 10 – they faced nine right-handed starters, including Luis Severino, Marcus Stroman and Mike Clevinger, all pitchers with sub-3.30 ERAs. But they also struggled against less-heralded right-handers as well.

The team’s struggles against right-handers down the stretch was compounded by Davis’ struggles. Davis hit .217 against right-handers in September and struck out 28 times in 71 plate appearances over 23 games. Davis hit just .218 against right-handed pitching on the season.

The free-agent market does have its share of left-handed hitters, but most of the big names — Eric Hosmer, Yonder Alonso, Logan Morrison, Mitch Moreland and Lucas Duda — are all first basemen. Davis is here to stay, playing in the third year of a club-record seven-year deal.

Kansas City Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas doesn’t fit because Manny Machado is here for at least another year. Colorado Rockies outfielder Carlos González is entering free agency coming off a down year, but he’d likely have to take a huge pay cut to be within the Orioles’ realm. Other notable left-handed bats include Jay Bruce, Curtis Granderson, John Jaso, Ben Revere, Colby Rasmus, Jarrod Dyson and Jon Jay, as well as switch-hitters Carlos Santana and Melky Cabrera.

Internally, there aren’t many options to add more left-handed bats to the lineup, aside from Sisco if the team decides he’s now ready to assume the starting catcher position. The team could retain Álvarez, but can’t carry both him and Trumbo, who has two more years remaining on his deal, as DH-only players.

Switch-hitting outfielder Cedric Mullins will likely be in big league camp this season. Mullins’ stock grew immensely over the past year and he posted an .863 OPS at Double-A Bowie against right-handers in 2017 with 11 of his 13 homers coming against righties. But he struggled down the stretch, hitting just .199 in his last 34 games after returning from the disabled list. Former first-rounder DJ Stewart posted an .892 OPS against right-handed pitching at Bowie.

So it will be a challenge to get more left-handed bats in the lineup in 2018, and it’s usually something the Orioles supplement with some late offseason signings (re-signing Álvarez late in spring training last year), but it’s a hole that needs to be addressed earlier this offseason.

eencina@baltsun.com

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