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Peter Schmuck: Lest we forget, Orioles have two important question marks on offense

The Orioles were well into their seventh Grapefruit League game Saturday when first baseman Chris Davis finally launched their first home run of March off a pitcher in a different uniform.

If you hadn't noticed their lack of power during the first week of the Grapefruit League season, don't feel bad. The emphasis during the first month of spring training has been so decidedly on the inordinate number of pitchers in camp that it has largely overshadowed the annual debate about the Orioles' questionable offensive potential.

There's plenty to wonder about. The Orioles won't open the season with a true leadoff hitter unless Brian Roberts makes miraculous progress in his recovery from multiple concussions or baseball operations chief Dan Duquette decides that free agent Johnny Damon still has one solid season left in him. The lack of an obvious cleanup hitter also is a potential trouble spot, and one that manager Buck Showalter acknowledges is more problematic than the void at the top of the batting order.

No big deal — just the two most important roles in the offensive lineup.

Davis actually thinks it isn't a big deal. He said last week that there are several hitters on the Orioles' roster — including himself — who are qualified to fill or share the cleanup spot.

"I think we have a lot of guys in our lineup who can do that," he said. "There's obviously a lot of versatility, but it's still early. Let's see what Buck has in store for us and see how he kind of mixes it up. There's a lot of different things you can do. With me being left-handed, we can switch-hit. Jonesy [Adam Jones] was in the four-hole the other night. Mark Reynolds. Matt Wieters. You've got a lot of guys you can pack in the five, six or even the four hole, so we'll see what Buck has in store for us."

The five-day wait for the first home run of the Grapefruit League season, according to Davis, is more the result of the weather conditions in Florida than anything the Orioles aren't doing at the plate.

"I didn't know that was the first one," he said after leaving Saturday's game. "I feel like every place we've played, the wind was blowing in. Our park was a joke the first few days. And then we get here and it's supposed to be a good place to hit, and we look up and the wind is blowing in. The games I've been in, I've seen a lot of guys hit balls hard. I think our offense is all right."

There is general agreement on that point in the Orioles clubhouse, but what else are the hitters going to say? That they aren't good enough and the team needs to go out and find people to replace them?

Showalter isn't hiding from any of this. He has been experimenting with the leadoff spot and theorizing about the cleanup possibilities all spring. Nolan Reimold has been getting a tryout at the top of the order, but he almost got knocked out of consideration Friday when Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Alex Cobb hit him in the face with a pitch. The other possibilities include infielder Robert Andino out newly acquired Endy Chavez.

"Somebody's going to have to do it," Reimold said. "There's always going to be somebody who is the No. 1 hitter and somebody that is the No. 4. I think somebody is going to step up, and I think, overall, we're going to have a pretty good offense."

Damon remains unsigned, and Duquette continues to send out mixed signals about whether the Orioles are at all interested in him. It's probably fair to assume that their level of interest might have risen if Reimold had been hurt more seriously.

The cleanup situation will have to be solved from within, and Showalter said he is hopeful that he can settle on someone to hit fourth on a regular basis. The alternative is a "mix-and-match" approach that utilizes different hitters in different situations.

"If we don't have somebody who grabs it and runs with it, then we'll have to move it around," Showalter said. "I'd rather not do that. I think that's more of a challenge for us than the leadoff spot. I've said that all along."

It's probably just what happens every spring, but the hitters continue to talk tough about their ability to compete in the American League East with just the players currently on the roster.

"Yeah, I do think we can," said shortstop J.J. Hardy, who hit 30 homers last year in spite of missing a month of the season with an injury. "I feel like, obviously, everyone needs to stay healthy. I think that we're all confident that our lineup is going to score runs and play defense. It's going to come down to if the pitchers do what they're capable of. I think they will. I hope they step it up. There are a lot of good arms, and it's just a matter of if they do what they are capable of."

No matter what the subject matter, the conversation always comes back around to pitching. That's just the nature of the game.

"I think we can compete with the lineup we have," right fielder Nick Markakis said. "We just need for our pitching to be strong. That's all we're looking for. We're just looking for our pitchers to give us a chance in the game and let our offense take over."

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

Read Peter Schmuck's blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen to him when he hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and wbal.com.

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