It’s a long way until Opening Day, and Orioles manager Brandon Hyde will take his time in constructing a lineup for the April 1st game at Boston’s Fenway Park.
One of the challenges will be finding a leadoff hitter.
Last year, Hyde used Hanser Alberto to lead off in 31 games, but he’s gone, having signed a minor league contract with Kansas City.
Hyde’s second most frequent hitter in the top spot might be his best option, Cedric Mullins, who hit .271 with a .311 on-base percentage in 17 games.
Austin Hays began the season as the leadoff hitter but didn’t fare well there. Hays hit just .171 with a .234 OBP in 10 games.
If you’re thinking Hyde might use one of his new middle infielders, shortstop Freddy Galvis or second baseman Yolmer Sánchez, that seems unlikely. Galvis rarely walks and has a .248 batting average with a .277 OBP in 54 starts in the leadoff spot. Galvis has hit second, sixth, seventh and eighth far more often than he hit first.
Sánchez has a .244 average in 48 games leading off. His on-base percentage is .310. He has hit second, eighth and ninth most often.
Last year, only Alberto, Hays, Mullins and Chance Sisco led off. Sisco, who hit just .214, had an on-base percentage of .364. Sisco was in the leadoff spot twice, once as a designated hitter, and on August 19th became one of the few catchers to lead off. He was hitless in four at-bats.
Under former manager Buck Showalter, the Orioles used a number unorthodox leadoff hitters, including Nick Markakis, Adam Jones and Manny Machado. Early in the 2018 season, Showalter used Chris Davis as the leadoff batter, hoping he might find his batting stroke there, but the experiment was quickly abandoned.
Designated hitter: Besides selecting a leadoff hitter, Hyde might want to choose a regular designated hitter, if that’s how he wants to employ the position.
Some managers like a regular DH. Others use the position as semi-rest day for players.
Last year, the Orioles used nine different players as the DH. Renato Núñez, who was the designated hitter more often than anyone, was released in November. Núñez signed a minor league contract with the Detroit Tigers on Wednesday.
Núñez started 21 games as the DH. Shortstop José Iglesias, who started 13, was traded to the Los Angeles Angels in December. Iglesias was used as the DH when his quadriceps injury made it difficult for him to play the field.
Pedro Severino (10 games) and Chance Sisco (8 games) were the only players who started more than three games as the DH. Hyde felt comfortable playing them together because he usually had a third catcher, Bryan Holaday, on the roster. With a 26-man roster instead of 28, it’s unlikely the Orioles will carry three catchers in 2021.
Trey Mancini, who’s returning from surgery for colon cancer, could DH when he’s not playing first base. Mancini has been a DH before. In 58 games there, Mancini has hit .290 with an .871 OPS and 15 home runs.
Ryan Mountcastle could aget some time there, too.
Minor league signings: Núñez’s signing with the Tigers ends a frustrating offseason for him.
Released on November 25th, Núñez, who hit 43 home runs in 2019 and 2020, found that there wasn’t much of a market for him. He’s not a good defender, and even though he’s got power, teams aren’t paying up for his type of player. He was one of 50 major leaguers to hit 31 or more home runs in 2019.
While the lack of a market wasn’t a surprise for Núñez, it surprised me that Alberto, had to settle for a minor league deal. The Orioles non-tendered Alberto the same night they traded Iglesias, and last year’s second baseman, who hit .398 against left-handed pitching in 2019, signed a $1.65 million contract with Kansas City with a possible $350,000 in performance bonuses.
Alberto’s ability to play second and third as well as his productivity against left-handers seemed to make him a possible fit with a contending club, but that never materialized.
The only player on last year’s Orioles roster to find a major league deal was right-handed pitcher Kohl Stewart, who signed a $700,000 contract with the Chicago Cubs. Stewart opted out early in the 2020 season without pitching for the Orioles.
Other 2020 Orioles who signed minor league deals include catcher Bryan Holaday (Arizona), outfielder Dwight Smith Jr. (Cincinnati) and right-hander Asher Wojciechowski (New York Yankees).