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With news that shortstop J.J. Hardy will be out roughly six weeks with a small fracture in his left foot, the questions came pouring in about what the Orioles are going to do to fill his spot defensively.
The most obvious move, and one that we’ll probably see plenty of in the next few weeks, is Gold Glove third baseman Manny Machado moving a few steps to his left to play shortstop, his natural position before arriving in the majors.
That prompts the next question: Who plays third base?
The easy answer is utility infielder Ryan Flaherty, who is expected to be recalled from the minors as the corresponding move when Hardy is officially placed on the DL.
Flaherty is solid defensively no matter where he is placed, but he’s better at third than shortstop (he was the starting shortstop at Vanderbilt University, but has played all over the diamond, including the outfield, as a pro). He’s also not much of a hitter, so if manager Buck Showalter and company are looking for more offense, they do have other options to consider.
One is to play designated hitter Pedro Alvarez at third base. Alvarez, who was Flaherty’s college roommate, is considered a below-average defensive third baseman. But that is his natural spot. In his big league career, 542 of his 666 starts have come at third base. Because he had made 25 or more errors in each season from 2012 to 2014, however, the Pittsburgh Pirates moved him off the hot corner and to first base in 2015. He made 23 errors there.
All 15 of Alvarez’s starts for the Orioles this year have been at designated hitter, though he has played five innings in two games at third base.
Showalter puts a premium on defense, so you wouldn’t think Alvarez would be the regular third baseman while Hardy is out, but I suppose he will get some time there. If Alvarez is at third, it would allow the Orioles to get Nolan Reimold’s bat in the lineup more often (Reimold could play right field and Mark Trumbo could be the DH).
Another, fairly far-fetched scenario is leaving Alvarez at DH, moving Trumbo to third and Reimold (or Joey Rickard) to right every day. Trumbo has started 608 games in his career and only eight were at third base – all back in 2012. He hasn’t played the position at all since logging two innings at third in 2013.
The other alignment people are clamoring for is the one I’m most against. That would be moving Trumbo from right to first base, where he has played more than any other position in his career. Scouts have told me he is a better first baseman than a right fielder. In that scenario, the Orioles would then use Reimold or Rickard in right most nights and Alvarez would remain at DH.
But for all that to happen, that would mean shifting Chris Davis across the diamond from first base to third. Davis has played 91 games at third base in his career, including 85 starts. In 2014, he played 21 games at third, 19 starts, and made just four errors.
He’s adequate there; he won’t really hurt you. In fact, of all the options with Machado moving to short, Davis is probably the best candidate to man third – besides Flaherty of course. And Davis switching corners would improve the team’s offense (Reimold looks to be a better hitter than Hardy and Flaherty at this point) as well as the team’s outfield defense.
But I wouldn’t do it.
Because, quietly, Davis is becoming one of the best defensive first basemen in the American League, especially when it comes to blocking errant throws. He has gotten much better at that.
This is one of the best infield defenses in the league. By losing Hardy, moving Machado to short and Davis to third, you are disrupting three spots. And, to me, that’s not worth it.
Leave Davis where he is, where he is excelling. And see what you have in Alvarez. Or be content with the offensive decline that comes with Flaherty or defensive shortstop extraordinaire Paul Janish, who is at Triple-A Norfolk. (Janish will go on paternity leave Wednesday, but should be ready to play by the weekend if the Orioles want to purchase his contract.)
Davis is a team player. He has gone to the outfield when asked; he’s even pitched when asked. He’ll go to third if asked. But he’s worked his butt off at first base and he deserves to stay there.
Here’s my thought: If Hardy were out all year, then maybe I do the Davis switch, allow him to re-learn the position. But it’s not worth it to disrupt his play at first base for six weeks or so and then ask him to go back and play Gold Glove caliber again – which he is doing right now, by the way.
I understand it’s an easy, quick fix and has merit on several levels.
But I also say don’t mess up a good thing.
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