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Orioles set up well to platoon, but that strategy could affect young players' development

In a division full of some of the American League's top left-handed pitchers, the Orioles have creatively built a roster that they hope will be better than the league's 29th-ranked offense off lefties, the way it was last season.

The key element is the power of the platoon.

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The Orioles could have five players — Hyun Soo Kim, Seth Smith, Joey Rickard, Trey Mancini, and Craig Gentry — rotating through two starting lineup spots each day, depending on the opponent's starting pitcher.

That creates some roster clutter on the bench, and in the long run, could leave the team thin at other areas of need while stagnating the development of two of the organization's promising young bats.

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But manager Buck Showalter said the roles will begin as opportunities for each player, and could grow into more, all while allowing the Orioles to put their best foot forward with a strong lineup each day.

"You go out there and ask Trey if he'd rather make the club and play against left-handed pitching or go back to Norfolk," Showalter said. "I think with Trey — we're going to have opportunities for all these guys to evolve into more everyday guys."

Before the Orioles placed Rule 5 outfielder Aneury Tavarez on waivers Wednesday, this method of roster construction was a problem. There simply wasn't enough space for all three of Rickard, Mancini and Gentry, all right-handed hitters and all among the team's top spring training performers.

Even adding into the mix right-handed-hitting slugger Mark Trumbo — who is an everyday player — means there's a lot to balance at just a few roster spots, be it in the outfield or at designated hitter.

Kim and Smith are on the big half of the platoons, facing the more-common right-handed pitching. Kim has a spotty history hitting left-handers in his native South Korea and didn't have a hit off one in 22 plate appearances last season with the Orioles. He's faced them occasionally this spring and has shown he can hold his own, but Showalter said "you're not going to be able to tell a whole lot" from spring.

"There were a lot of things that went on over there [in Korea] that didn't happen last year," Showalter said. "It doesn't mean it can't happen here. Somewhere along the line, he might get the opportunity. … I've got a pretty good idea of what he can do, in my mind. It doesn't make me right. It's kind of similar to what I thought come in."

Smith comes with a reputation as someone who can hit only right-handers, and the stats bear that out. Against right-handed pitching, his wRC+ — a statistic that measures how many runs a player is worth to his team compared with the average player when adjusted for ballpark conditions — dwarfs his number against lefties. It's 121 against righties and 60 against lefties (all stats according to FanGraphs).

When introduced after his trade from the Seattle Mariners, Smith said no one wants to view himself as a platoon player. He's also had some capable seasons against left-handed pitching, but at one point he began to be viewed as a platoon player and the label never left him. It frustrates him, but he takes it in stride.

"You just prepare yourself to play the best you can regardless of your role, then kind of adjust according to what your role is or what it becomes," Smith said. "Sometimes, it changes from time to time, what's expected of you and the role you play. As long as there's open communication, then it usually goes pretty smoothly."

But to accommodate those two left-handed bats on the roster, the Orioles will essentially be forced to create the right-handed side of their platoons out of players who aren't at the stage in their careers to be labeled as platoon hitters — or don't have that track record.

Rickard's still-limited track record of 282 plate appearances lends itself to the idea of platooning him, as his wRC+ of 131 against left-handers was twice what it was against righties (65). But the 25-year-old is still developing, and playing him against only opposite-side pitching doesn't do much for the hopes he can grow into an everyday player.

That's even more applicable for Mancini, who hit three home runs off lefties last September and is batting .339 with three homers overall this spring. It's understood he can hit left-handers, but is a few games per week plus the occasional day off for Trumbo and Davis enough to justify taking everyday at-bats from him in the minors? The Orioles will likely decide yes, it is.

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Then they'll have to factor in time for Craig Gentry, who came out of nowhere to put himself into position to earn one of the final bench spots.

He's a player whose glove and speed on the bases are worthy of a roster spot on their own. His spring at-bats have been strong, but he has just 95 plate appearances in the past two seasons and hasn't been used in a strict platoon, as Showalter tends to do it in his career.

He has a career wRC+ of 97 against lefties and 72 against righties. Using him in a righty/lefty platoon runs the risk of creating a situation like Nolan Reimold endured last year — playing only against lefties but not hitting them well.

Platoons are a natural part of the game, especially in modern times, with teams looking at every opportunity to maximize their advantages, but players often take the best-for-the-team tack when discussing it.

"Maybe a guy is capable of matching up against both right- and left-handed pitching, but if for whatever reason it works out that maybe one guy hits against one side better than the other, you do the best you can to do what you do best," Trumbo said. "That's probably enough. If we do have some of those situations going on, we had it last year a little bit and it worked out great."

"You don't really think about it, honestly," Smith said. "You prepare yourself to play and understand there's things you can control and things you can't control, and just try to be the best baseball player you can be. …I would say try to just do what you've done that got you here, and do what you do that the team that you're on likes for you to do."

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Baltimore Sun reporter Eduardo A. Encina contributed to this story.

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