Fourth and foremost: O's need better production in cleanup spot to be successful

When executive vice president Dan Duquette began assembling the 2012 Orioles, he kept in mind one of manager Buck Showalter's requests.

If possible, Showalter did not want to be saddled with a strict designated hitter this season like he was in 2011 when declining superstar Vladimir Guerrero clogged the DH and cleanup spots.

Heading into Friday's opener, and barring an 11th hour signing of a DH without a home — Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui and Guerrero are still available — Showalter will be able to mix and match his DH this season. That will allow him the flexibility to use the spot for specific batter/pitcher matchups or to give a partial day of rest to one of his regular position players.

As many as six players could routinely share the DH role, and that plays to the strength of Showalter, a master tactician who began seriously fiddling with his 2012 batting order as early as December.

"It can be a strength to be able to move people around with the matchups if it doesn't hamper their ability to perform," Showalter said. "The good thing is we've got a lot of people with a lot of experience hitting in different places in the order with the exception of probably 1 and 4."

The top spot continues to be an uncertainty with the tenuous health of proven leadoff hitter Brian Roberts, who will start the season on the disabled list. But at least the club knows Roberts will fill the spot if he battles back from concussion symptoms.

By not having that slugging DH type, though, a brighter light shines on what may be the biggest deficiency in the Orioles' veteran lineup. There really is no obvious hitter to bat fourth — the ever-important cleanup role — in 2012.

"We don't have a prototypical guy," Orioles hitting coach Jim Presley said. "Your DH is normally your fourth hitter in the American League. What Buck wanted to do is have that roving DH where it's not just one guy, where you live and die with him, whether he is a lefty or righty."

Currently, the Oriole with the most experience at cleanup is reserve Nick Johnson, who has had 721 at-bats in the spot, but hasn't done it in more than 35 games in a season since 2006. The two most likely options in the fourth hole for 2012 are Matt Wieters and Adam Jones, who have a combined for 118 at-bats hitting cleanup — roughly one-fourth of a season.

"We are leaning toward those two guys," Presley said. "Now, maybe there is somebody that gets hot and all that changes. Somebody gets really hot for a week or two or 10 days and he jumps into the fourth spot or the fifth spot to protect the fourth spot."

Last year, the offense often sputtered with the lack of production from Guerrero, who started 127 games at cleanup. He had just 13 homers and 63 RBIs overall, and the club's collective cleanup hitters finished 12th in the AL in home runs (16) and last in RBIs (65).

Perhaps the most telling stat is this: Only the ninth spot in the Orioles' lineup had fewer home runs and RBIs in 2011 than cleanup.

Struggling in the four hole is nothing new for the Orioles.

Since 2005, Orioles cleanup hitters have not finished better than eighth of the 14 American League teams in on-base-plus-slugging percentage. You have to go back to 2004 — the first season of the Miguel Tejada era — for the Orioles to show up in the Top 5 of most offensive categories from the fourth spot.

In the past three seasons, Orioles cleanup hitters have ranked 12th, 12th and 11th in home runs. They were sixth in the category in 2008 when Aubrey Huff had his monster Most Valuable Oriole season.

"For me, I've never necessarily had that big, 40, 45 home run guy hitting behind me, but I've had some damn good guys hitting behind me," said right fielder Nick Markakis, who has been the club's primary No. 3 hitter in the past few years.

"I've had Tejada hitting behind me, I've had Aubrey hitting behind me. The last couple years it has been sporadic, here and there. I've had several different guys hitting behind me. I personally don't necessarily need that 40-home-run guy. Anybody just wants somebody consistent hitting behind them. That's what you look for in this game. And you look at our lineup now and, all the way from top to bottom, we have consistency throughout."

To borrow a phrase from Showalter, if "big, hairy guys" in the middle of the order is what you want, the Orioles fall dramatically short.

Mark Reynolds has the most prodigious power and the most experience hitting fourth among the club's regulars. But his propensity for striking out limits Reynolds' presence at cleanup — particularly when No. 4 hitters are often coming to the plate in spots where contact, such as a fly ball, is useful.

"You can't have a guy that punches out 175 or 200 times there. That's not what the fourth hitter is all about," Presley said. "It needs to be one of your top three hitters as far as [productive at-bats]."

Ideally, the Orioles would like to have Roberts batting leadoff, Markakis second, Jones third, Wieters fifth and J.J. Hardy sixth. But without the prototypical basher in the middle, that's not possible.

"You've got to protect that fourth guy, and that fourth guy has got to protect that third guy," Presley said. "If we put Jones in there, that's pretty good protection for Markakis. But if you put Jones at third and move Markakis to second, you still protect Nick, but now you've got to protect Jones."

The most common lineup to begin the season likely will have the starting left fielder for a given game — either Nolan Reimold or Endy Chavez — leading off, with Hardy or maybe Johnson batting second. Markakis likely will hit third, Jones fourth and Wieters fifth.

Second baseman Robert Andino will likely bat ninth most days, and a mix of Hardy, Reynolds, Chris Davis and Wilson Betemit will bat between sixth and eighth.

Like most players, Jones and Wieters said they are not concerned with where they are hitting in the order.

"Cleanup hitter is just one position that you know if you get an AB in the first inning, you've got somebody on base and maybe a chance to drive in a run then," said Wieters, who has hit .150 with a .203 on-base percentage and a .250 slugging percentage in 60 at-bats at cleanup. "But other than that, you never really know how the lineup is going to shake out and how people are going to get on base. And so I think whoever hits cleanup, hits cleanup. And whoever hits fifth, hits fifth. I don't think it really makes a difference."

Jones, who has an impressive slash line of .345/.391/.552 in just 58 at-bats hitting cleanup, may be a better fit batting third or fifth. He's likely to be the primary Orioles cleanup hitter in 2012, but says all he wants is a chance to drive in runs.

"As long as people are on base, you know my stance: People on base, you got Jones happy," he said. "I like RBIs. RBIs are what this game is about. You've got to score runs. And for some reason, I like to be in the situation where a man's on base and the pressure is on the pitcher or myself to get that man in. Someone's got to win that battle, and I like that competition."

If he had to choose, Markakis said he would pick Wieters to bat behind him, simply because Wieters can hit right-handed or left-handed, and that could yield better pitches for Markakis.

"Nothing against Jonesy, he's done great in there, but I think Wieters would be a good cleanup hitter," Markakis said. "Who doesn't want a switch-hitting guy hitting behind him? It makes it tougher on the opposing team and the opposing manager to make a decision."

Ultimately, Showalter doesn't have a preference on which one of his hitters he'd like to have seize the cleanup role for now or in the future. He would, however, prefer having one consistent, powerful and disciplined hitter in that spot — and thinks that could happen this year.

"It could evolve into that. It could easily evolve into that," Showalter said. "It's kind of up to the players and how they perform, too."



Orioles who have at least 50 at-bats at the cleanup spot in their careers

Nick Johnson, 721 ABs, 28 HR, 121 RBIs, .269/.414/.474

Mark Reynolds, 588 ABs, 42 HR, 97 RBIs, .241/.343/.498

Nick Markakis, 187 ABs, 5 HR, 24 RBIs, .273/.314/.417

Wilson Betemit, 103 ABs, 8 HR, 23 RBIs, .350/.415/.670

Matt Wieters, 60 ABs, 1 HR, 5 RBIs, .150/.203/.250

Adam Jones, 58 ABs, 3HRs, 6 RBIs, .345/.391/.552 slugging

Source: Baseball-Reference.com

Orioles' cleanup hitters' on-base-plus-slugging percentage and rank in AL (14 teams)

2011, .715, 11th

2010, .730, 12th

2009, .711, 13th

2008, .839, 8th

2007, .778, 12th

2006, .832, 10th

2005, .791 9th

2004, .882 3rd

Source: ESPN

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