When outfielders Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis left via free agency last winter, the Orioles had both explanations and replacements at the ready.
Cruz wanted a four-year contract, which was too long of a commitment for the Orioles. The Seattle Mariners offered a four-year, $57 million deal, and the 35-year-old Cruz rode a 21-homer first half to a starting designated hitter spot in Tuesday's All-Star Game.
Markakis, 31, came close to signing a four-year deal with the Orioles in November, but an MRI showed he'd need offseason neck surgery. Concerned the condition would sap his power and hinder his trademark durability, the club pulled its offer. Markakis signed for four years and $44 million with the Atlanta Braves, and has played in 88 of 89 games while hitting .293 with a .381 on-base percentage and no homers.
Losing both was not greeted enthusiastically by Orioles fans.
Besides having to replace their leadership and potential offensive production, the Orioles have missed a duo that started a combined 217 games in the corner-outfield spots last year.
After Cruz and Markakis departed, both executive vice president Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter quickly pointed out that the club had other outfielders who could move into more prominent roles.
There was: Alejandro De Aza, who came over in an August trade; Delmon Young, who would play the field more and DH less; David Lough, a defensive stalwart; Travis Snider, who was acquired via trade in January; Steve Pearce, last year's breakout player; Nolan Reimold, who was healthy again; and Dariel Alvarez, the team's top outfield prospect at Triple-A.
Things, it now can be said, have not worked out as planned.
At the All-Star break, two of the aforementioned solutions, De Aza and Young, are already gone from the organization. De Aza was traded to the Boston Red Sox for a minor leaguer in June and Young was released last week.
Through 88 first-half games, the Orioles have used six starting right fielders and six starting left fielders. Last year, five different Orioles started in left field and four in right through the entire season. Young had made the most starts in right so far this season (37) and Snider the most in left (30). (Markakis started 147 in right in 2014 while Cruz led left fielders with 60 starts.) Now, it has been more of a mix-and-match situation.
"It's good and bad. It's not bad — good and presents challenges," Showalter said. "You are trying to keep everybody in the flow, but we'd love to have [consistency]. … You're trying to keep everybody in the flow and give everybody an opportunity. But we're kind of at the point where you'd really like to see somebody take it and run with it."
As the second half begins Friday, two peculiar outfield possibilities have arisen. One, the most likely player to seize right field on a regular basis is a guy who wasn't even a consideration in April: first baseman Chris Davis. Two, the left-field offense has been so anemic that the club could try to acquire another outfielder, despite having six players on the 25-man roster that have started at least seven games in one of the corner-outfield spots.
Trading for an outfielder is a consideration, Duquette acknowledged, but it's contingent on what he'd have to give up from a limited array of trade chips and what would be coming back in return.
"It depends on what the quality of the players that are available comparative to the players we have. So that's something we'll have to take a look at," Duquette said. "We would hope to get more production out of left field in the second half of the season."
Duquette added that Alvarez might be ready to help. The 26-year-old Cuban is hitting .284 with 13 homers at Triple-A Norfolk and has the best throwing arm among outfielders in the organization. But he has some warts. Alvarez has walked only seven times in 367 plate appearances this year, though he has only struck out 43 times.
"I do like the way Dariel Alvarez is playing at Triple-A," Duquette said. "He's leading the International League in total bases, which tells you a couple things: One, that he posts, plays every day, and two, that he has a dangerous bat."
The Orioles left fielders have combined to hit .223 with a .286 on-base percentage and a .352 slugging percentage, all among the worst marks in the American League. The right-field production has been better: a .285 average, a .321 on-base percentage and .448 slugging, but the position also has been a carousel.
That could end — at least for the second half — if the Orioles decide that Davis is the answer. A Gold Glove candidate at first base in 2013, Davis hadn't played in right since 2012. Because Chris Parmelee has excelled defensively at first base and the DH role is clogged by Jimmy Paredes, the best way to keep Davis' power bat in the lineup was to move him to right. And though it's not his natural position, he's enough of a natural athlete to be competent there.
"I like Chris Davis in the outfield," Duquette said. "His arm is an asset and he seems to like playing out there."
Since getting his first start this season in right on June 26, Davis has been out there 14 of the past 16 games. It would have been 15 of 16, but he was scratched Saturday with the stomach flu. Davis has provided some recent stability to a position that has lacked it — ironic since right field had been the most stable spot in the Orioles' defensive lineup with Markakis playing there consistently since 2006.
And although four-time Gold Glover Adam Jones has arguably played his best defensive center field this year, he admits the uncertainty to his left and right has been challenging.
"I wouldn't say difficult, I would just say I have to bring my A game defensively every day. If we have a three-game series, I may play with three different outfielders — it's how it is," Jones said. "Markakis was the cornerstone here for nine seasons, so I didn't have to worry about right field. Now, I've just got to focus even more in the game. Because I have left and right fielders that I've got to know where they're at. I've got to make sure we are all in sync."
In fairness, Showalter has penciled in the same names consecutively at times during the season. At separate points in June, Reimold started six of seven in left, Snider started eight of 10 in left, Parmelee started seven of eight in right and Lough started nine of 13 in center while Jones was injured.
"We've tried," Showalter said. "And, without naming names, we've had a couple, maybe four or five times, we thought somebody was getting ready to run and it just hasn't materialized yet."
Showalter likes to call it the chicken-and-egg theory of baseball lineups. Reserve players want to be in the starting lineup more often, but they need to play well in limited action to warrant increased playing time. And that's not an easy thing to do.
"You can't make excuses," Snider said. "It is tough for anybody in this position to find consistent success when you don't have consistent playing time. But that's not an excuse I look to use. This is something I use to motivate myself to be prepared when your name is called."
Lough may be in the most difficult spot. He doesn't start much, and when he does it's often against tough right-handers. He went four games last week without playing and then picked up the starting assignment Sunday against Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer, one of baseball's best. Lough's main role in the past two seasons has been as a pinch runner/defensive replacement.
"I'm always constantly running through the halls [during games], trying to get loose, hitting balls in the cage. So it's definitely a hard gig, but you kind of embrace it," Lough said. "It's the big leagues. You've got to be prepared and never let your guard down at any point."
The Orioles players know by now that anything can happen to the roster throughout a season. It's possible that by August the Orioles have the same two corner outfielders next to Jones nearly every day.
"We figure it out some way. That's how we've been the last four, five years. Somehow, some way we've figured it out," Jones said. "I'd love [stability]. … But, at the end of the day, you've got to go out there and play. And whoever is out there on the battlefield with me, hey, let's make some plays."