by Kerry Leibowitz
In light of Brian Roberts’ recent surgery and the accompanying announcement that he was projected to miss another six weeks of action, I will say this much: I went into this past off-season with the firm belief that the Orioles had to enter the 2013 season with the mindset that they couldn't count on Roberts to be either a) healthy or b) effective. They didn't need a Plan B--Roberts himself (should he somehow defy reasonable expectations) was Plan B...or, possibly, Plan C. The alternative to Roberts, would be Plan A.
We’re closing in on the completion of the season’s sixth week and, so far, Plan A has been something close to a total failure. The Orioles are basically running a full-time platoon at second with Ryan Flaherty (who's getting at least 3/4 of the starts) and Alexi Casilla. While Flaherty has done an admirable job of not bringing his offensive struggles into the field (he's done a very nice job with the glove to this point), those "offensive struggles" are approaching historic levels of bad. I use Ron Karkovice's performance out of the chute in 1987 (http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/k/karkoro01.shtml) as my benchmark of offensive incompetence by a position player. Karkovice was finally farmed out that year at the All-Star break after appearing in 39 games (this was the preserve-Carlton-Fisk-by-not-catching-him-all-the-time experiment that came to an end once and for all in the first week of June, partly because Karkovice just couldn't hit at all), but went on to have a career that spanned parts of 15 seasons.
Flaherty hasn't been quite as bad as Karkovice in 1987 (-20 OPS+, .024 OWP), but he really hasn't been much better: his OPS+ is 11; his OWP is .104. This is basically the equivalent of having a mediocre hitting pitcher in the lineup. In limited action (36 PA), Casilla hasn't been much better (OPS+ of 30; OWP of .168). He's never been that bad in his career, but there's not much in his MLB history that suggests he's "the answer" at second base for the Orioles either. I think he's a moderately useful spare part (he's got good foot speed, for instance, and is fairly versatile defensively), but that's about it. As for Flaherty, this isn't merely a case of hitting in bad luck--he's fanned in 1/4 of his plate appearances (about the same rate as last year) and there have been very, very few hard hit outs when has put the ball in play. I've been watching. Prior to Thursday’s game, his last hit came on Sunday, and even though it was a big one (he drove in two runs), he basically got massively jammed and manage to bloop a ball into shallow left-center field. Yesterday, he reached base twice, which sounds great. Jeremy Guthrie inexplicably walked him in Flaherty’s first plate appearance. Later on, he reached on an “infield single” that was really a routine ground ball to the first baseman that turned into a “hit” when Guthrie was late getting off the mount to cover.
Since the Orioles are winning--and let's be clear, it's in spite of what Flaherty is doing at the plate—he could be the best defensive second baseman in baseball history (he isn't; he's solid, but this isn't a Gold Glove candidate we're talking about) and there's no way his defense would even come close to making up for his (lack of) offense—the club appears to be hoping that he'll somehow "figure it out" and everything will take care of itself. This is extremely unlikely based on what I'm seeing, which is that Flaherty is almost pathologically unable to hit offspeed offerings of any kind, and he's now scuffling so badly (it's obviously gotten into his head--he's probably having nightmares about curve balls and straight changes) that on the rare occasion that an opposing pitcher does give him a fastball for a strike, he isn't ready for it. He's had 92 plate appearances and there's really not a hint of a sign that anything is getting any better. This isn’t a slump, in the conventional sense of the term; what we’re seeing here is a performance deficit.
Barring some kind of miracle, the Orioles are going to have to do something, because this utter lack of production from a spot in the lineup will bite them sooner or later...and probably sooner. The best in-house option the team has is Yamaico Navarro, who is currently hitting the crap out of the ball at Norfolk. For the season, he's hitting .317/.405/.462; that's in roughly 125 PAs, and let's remember what a massive pitcher's park Norfolk plays in. In his last 10 games, he's at .421/.522/.579. This is a guy who was a major prospect in the Red Sox system not all that long ago, before he gained a ton of weight. He dropped most of that weight this off-season, which is when the O's acquired him. He's generally considered a solid or better fielder. He's actually younger than Flaherty is. It seems almost inevitable that he'll get a shot at the job one of these days. Whether this is "the answer" or not, I don't know. He hasn't hit at all in a few brief forays into the majors totaling 71 games and 160-odd plate appearances. But he has hit in the minors, particularly in the upper minors (think AAA). He draws walks and he has a bit of pop. And he's already on the 40-man roster. He almost has to get a look.
If that doesn't work out, we're almost certainly looking at a trade of some kind. (I’m sure everyone has heard at least some of the whispers about Chase Utley, for instance.) Waiting for Roberts in the hope that he'll be available to play the second half of the season seems insane to me for a lot of reasons. He seems beyond brittle at this stage; since the end of the 2009 season, Roberts has appeared in a grand total of 118 games...about 20% of the games that the Orioles have played during that time period, and the percentage will continue to drop, of course. There's also a very large question: if he is somehow able to remain healthy, will he be able to perform? He only appeared in four games this year before getting hurt, and while he was off to a nice start with the bat...it was four games. And he really seems to have deteriorated horribly defensively, both in terms of range and arm strength. Just as it was foolhardy to plan on Roberts playing a major role during the off-season, it's dumb to do so now, looking forward.
Something’s got to give. It’s difficult to believe that a team can contend despite what amounts to a black hole at one spot in the lineup—particularly when there’s a second slot that looks more and more like a hole of its own (tip a glance at Nolan Reimold’s 58 OPS+, .198 OWP performance). I do believe that the Orioles are quite aware of all of this and will take some kind of action fairly soon, barring a sudden, unexpected turn of events.
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