During the most successful seasons under current Orioles leadership, the team’s 25-man roster flourished because of fluidity. Manager Buck Showalter was able to maneuver his role players, sometimes testing conventional thought, but more often than not putting them in situations where they could complement the club’s cornerstone pieces.
The Lew Fords, Nate McLouths and Steve Pearces all had important roles, and they thrived in them to become key contributors.
This year’s team has been more wracked by injuries than those clubs, and this Orioles club has yet to field its entire projected Opening Day lineup for one game, and that’s made the bench and depth weaknesses more glaring.
The problem manifested itself in the ninth inning of Tuesday night’s 3-2 loss to the Washington Nationals. Clinging to a one-run lead, the Nationals brought in left-hander Sean Doolittle. Trey Mancini was hit by a pitch and Joey Rickard singled, giving the Orioles two on with one out.
With lefty masher Danny Valencia unavailable because he was attending to his pregnant wife, the rally was left to pinch-hitters Craig Gentry and Andrew Susac, who struck out, ending the rally quietly.
“We’ve had some people, we just haven’t taken care of some of the opportunities, taken advantage of some of the opportunities they’ve gotten,” Showalter said. “We knew [injuries] were going to happen. You don’t like the volume of them. At some point we’re going to get [those guys back]. ... So I don’t see this as unique. It’s part of the job description when you go into it. You know there’s a good chance you’re going to get challenged with some injuries and what have you. Some of our issues have been self-inflicted. We just haven’t performed as well as we need to.”
Before Wednesday’s game, the Orioles lost Valencia for up to three days to the paternity list, a void that’s much more significant than one would have imagined going into the season. Valencia, signed as a minor league free agent in early March, entered Wednesday night as one of just five players on the current 25-man roster who was hitting above .236.
Early injuries to Jonathan Schoop and Mark Trumbo — both of whom have returned — as well as the lingering injuries to Tim Beckham and Colby Rasmus have hurt. The Orioles have been without closer Zach Britton all year, Darren O’Day’s DL stint has taken longer than anticipated, and Chris Tillman’s return is indefinite.
Over the weekend, the Orioles played a Tampa Bay Rays team that defied convention, fielding a roster with nine relievers and two bench players with the focus on having setup relievers get the first three to six outs of the game against the right-handed-heavy Orioles lineup before bringing in a starter to continue.
The Orioles don’t have that flexibility. They don’t have an optionable bullpen, and they don’t have a diverse bench either. They either weren’t aptly prepared for the rash of injuries that hit them or the depth they’d need to sustain a major league roster.
The current 25-man roster relies on too many contributions from individuals who can be considered no more than role players. Pedro Álvarez, Valencia and Gentry were acquired on minor league deals in February or March. Jace Peterson, claimed off waivers last month from the New York Yankees, has played regularly at third and in the outfield after previous utility options flopped. Susac, who was acquired in a minor trade with the Milwaukee Brewers in the offseason, has replaced Caleb Joseph as the backup catcher to top prospect Chance Sisco. The spring training decision to give Rasmus most of the at-bats in right field backfired quickly when he started slowly and suffered a lingering hip injury.
“I don't look at it that way,” Showalter said. “It just creates an opportunity for somebody. Those guys are capable of doing the job. … I don’t know. That's kind of an excuse. We've got some good people capable of doing the job there.”
While teams around the majors have promoted their top prospects to inject new life into their clubhouses, the Orioles have few options for that in the minors.
The lack of depth comes at an unfortunate time for the Orioles, especially with outfield prospects Austin Hays and DJ Stewart landing on the minor league disabled list Wednesday.
Hays, the organization’s top prospect, was hitting just .224 with a .633 OPS in 43 games with Double-A Bowie since going on the DL with an ankle injury. Stewart was having a solid season at Triple-A Norfolk before landing on the DL with an hamstring injury, posting an .814 OPS with a .363 on-base percentage.
That makes Bowie outfielder Cedric Mullins the only real minor league position player prospect who could qualify for big league promotion. A switch-hitter, Mullins would fit well because he could play all three outfield positions as well as bat from the left side. Mullins is hitting .313/.361/.510 with 20 extra-base hits (12 doubles, four triples, six homers) for Bowie.
Mullins is expected to be promoted to Norfolk by the end of the week with an effort to give him seasoning at that level before he’s considered for the major league club, though some in the organization feel he is worthy of a big league call-up.
Still, that’s just one option, not enough to overcome a lack of depth and flaws in roster construction.