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With Nelson Cruz gone, Orioles designated for flexibility

Steve Pearce, left, and Delmon Young, shown in an August game against Tampa Bay, are expected to share time at designated hitter with a number of Orioles.
Steve Pearce, left, and Delmon Young, shown in an August game against Tampa Bay, are expected to share time at designated hitter with a number of Orioles. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

Quiz him about his team's versatility, and Orioles manager Buck Showalter quickly rattles off the names of players on his potential 25-man roster who can play multiple positions adequately.

There's Steve Pearce, Chris Davis and Jimmy Paredes. Ryan Flaherty, Jonathan Schoop and Everth Cabrera. Travis Snider, Alejandro De Aza and Delmon Young.

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Excluding Gold Glove Award winners Adam Jones, J.J. Hardy and Manny Machado, and the club's cadre of catchers, there's probably no position player Showalter wouldn't be comfortable shifting around the diamond.

Translation: Expect to see plenty of lineup shuffling this year, including a revolving door at designated hitter. It might look as it did in 2013, when Danny Valencia led the Orioles in DH starts with 38.

"I'd like to keep that as flexible as possible," Showalter said of the DH role. "But if there was somebody out there that wasn't very good defensively but could really hit, yeah, I'd [have one DH]. But do you see that guy?"

The Orioles had that guy last year — to an extent. Nelson Cruz led the team with 89 starts at DH, but not because he was a terrible defender; he was adequate in left field. Showalter was so wary of Cruz's history of hamstring problems that he kept the slugger off the outfield grass for half the team's games.

It paid off: Cruz tied a career high with 159 games played and set a career best with 40 home runs. He then left as a free agent in the offseason, signing a four-year, $57 million deal with the Seattle Mariners.

His departure probably leaves Young, who started 38 games at the spot in 2014, as the player most likely to get the most DH time in 2015. But Showalter said he expects to use Young in the outfield more this year, especially with the departure of Cruz and right fielder Nick Markakis.

Although Young often took circuitous routes to balls in left field last season, Showalter said he believes the veteran is solid defensively, particularly in right, his most natural position.

"He may not always look aesthetically pleasing, but the end product is usually pretty good with Delmon," Showalter said. "There's not many people here with more arm strength and throwing ability than Delmon, too. I think people miss that about him."

In his four full seasons managing the Orioles, Showalter has had a player start at DH at least 100 times just once. That was in 2011, when an aging Vladimir Guerrero had 137 starts. That year, just seven Orioles started at DH, compared with 16 in 2013 and eight in 2014.

It would be a surprise if more than 10 Orioles don't get at least one start at DH in 2015.

"I think, with the way our club is constructed, we always want to have that spot open for Jones for a night, for Davis for a night, for Manny for a night, for J.J. Hardy," Showalter said. "It's tough when you see a guy needs a day [off], but you see, say, a pitcher that he really hits well."

Fortunately, Showalter believes many of his players are not only capable defensively but also interchangeable. So juggling positions on a daily basis should become commonplace in 2015.

"I'm going to have some nights when Pearce is DHing, when Pearce is playing right and Pearce is playing first and Pearce is playing third," Showalter said. "Delmon could play right or left or DH. Chris can play first, third, right or left. So we don't feel like we are losing anything defensively."

Showalter contends that making a regular position player a DH on occasion gives him a half-day off. His players appreciate the break, as long as it's temporary. The DH slot is viewed as an old-man's spot — and most of the key Orioles are under 30.

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"We have a relatively young team," Davis said. "No one wants to be a full-time DH, and so I think it is a good thing that Buck uses it the way he does."

As for whether it really is a break, that's up to interpretation.

Davis started 60 times at DH in 2012, and said each player must figure out what works best for him in the role. Davis can't sit in the dugout and watch a game, then go out every few innings to the plate. He has to keep his body moving and his mind clear. He appreciates not being out in the Baltimore humidity several games each summer, but he's still expending energy in the clubhouse as a DH.

"For me, it's something where I need to hit off the tee in between innings, go in the weight room and stretch, ride the bike. Do stuff to kind of keep loose," Davis said. "Some guys sit down and watch the game. Some guys like to relax, and they get ready to hit a few batters before they are up. For me, I am constantly doing something because I don't want to just sit there and basically think about everything."

Ultimately, Davis said he is "indifferent" about being a DH; there are advantages and disadvantages.

"I like playing defense. I feel like even if you have a bad day at the plate, you can kind of pick the team up defensively. When you're the DH, it's kind of a one-way street," he said. "But it is nice to DH every once in a while, especially toward the middle and end of the season. Those long, hot day games, it's nice to have a DH" opportunity.

Pearce said his biggest concern when he is scheduled to DH is whether he'll have an area close to the dugout where he can swing a bat and keep loose. Some stadiums do; others don't. Otherwise, he said, he embraces a chance to occasionally DH.

"When you get that sporadic DH [start], it's always good on your body," he said. "But it depends on where you are. … If you do it just every once in a while and there's a spot to warm up in, it really is no big deal."

The bottom line, Pearce said, is that players don't want to DH if they think playing in the field will help their team win. With the Orioles, though, because there's such an emphasis on defense, and because there are so many players who can fill in at various positions and not cost the team defensively, DHing becomes just another way Showalter can get the most out of his club.

"I like mixing it up. We have a lot of guys that can play multiple positions. It's always good that when you show up and look at the lineup, you are in it. And then it's, 'OK, I get to wear the DH today,'" Pearce said. "It's almost like a lot of guys have that mentality where they know that it's OK to DH and the defense that day isn't going to be hurting. And that's always a good thing for Buck."

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