It isn’t even March 1 yet, so the Orioles are a long way away from choosing which 25 players will start out on the Opening Day roster, let alone which hitter will bat first in the order when the season opens in Tampa Bay.
But, for me, one of the interesting subplots of spring training will be discovering which player will lead off.
The Orioles can no longer pencil in Brian Roberts as a sure thing atop the order. Roberts was the best one of the best leadoff hitters in baseball before his body began to break down and he began having concussion issues. From 2005 to 2009, he hit at least .283 in each season and his lowest on-base percentage over that span was .347. But he has played just 115 games the past three seasons, including just 17 last season.
Down in the Sunshine State, Roberts says he feels good -- he also says he is still the team's best option at second base -- and he has three hits, two of them doubles, in eight spring training at-bats.
If healthy -- and it’s totally fair to say that it is a big if -- Roberts will probably reclaim his spot atop the order, but we shouldn’t discount what Nick Markakis did there last season.
After Markakis returned to the lineup in July from a midseason injury to his right wrist, Orioles manager Buck Showalter stuck him in the leadoff spot. Markakis, who has typically hit second or third in the order, quickly caught fire. In 54 games while hitting leadoff, Markakis batted .335 with a .390 on-base percentage and a .489 slugging percentage. He scored 34 runs and swatted 15 doubles.
Basically, Markakis was doing what Roberts, his good friend, did for years: He concentrated on hitting singles and doubles, made the pitcher work, and set the tone for the rest of the lineup.
When Markakis went down with a thumb injury in September, the Orioles continued to wins games. Left fielder Nate McLouth did a serviceable job in his place, but there was a drop-off.
McLouth re-signed and is back in the mix this offseason. So is fellow left fielder Nolan Reimold, who provided pop at the leadoff spot early in the season before he was shut down with an injury in late April. Those two could be in the conversation, too, but the X-factor in this discussion will obviously be Roberts’ health.
If he can stay in the lineup, he will probably stay at the top of it. But should he be sidelined again, at least the Orioles know they have other options, specifically Markakis, who is the best of the bunch.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times