Living Without Chris Davis
With Chris Davis sidelined for about two weeks with a strained oblique, the Orioles are forced to make do without the monster slugger that’s been propelling the team to wins for over a year. A number of defensive changes and shifts in the lineup will need to take place for the O’s to tread water with Davis on the disabled list and without a definite return date.
Losing Davis’ glove isn’t earth shattering like it was with Manny Machado. Having both guys out is obviously not ideal since they seemed to develop a good rapport in 2013, but it doesn’t sound like the hot corner will be manned by anyone but Platinum Glove winner Machado for much longer. Davis was a good first baseman, but it’s not a difficult position and the Orioles can probably slot most of their players there for a short while.
The biggest issue with losing Davis on defense is how it forces other players onto the field. So far, the Orioles have moved Markakis up to first, which has gone okay. Both pitchers they’ve faced in two games started without Davis have been righties – Big Game James Shields and former Oriole Jeremy Guthrie – so Lough and Cruz would already have been in the lineup but only the former would have been in the field. Putting Cruz in right makes the Orioles instantly worse on defense, even though Markakis never rates well as a defensive right fielder.
Just seeing Markakis fielding the ball on dirt is strange for Orioles fans.
As far as I can tell, Cruz has never played first base in the Major Leagues, which doesn’t appear to force the O’s hand. Markakis has appeared in a staggering three games at first, all in 2011, and only two as a starter. With only 18 innings under his belt, I have a hard time believing that Markakis was significantly more experienced than Cruz at first. However, Markakis probably moves better than Cruz around the bag and I have this mental picture of Cruz closing his eyes when the ball is thrown across the diamond while he’s covering first and I think Buck appreciates that we just can’t take that right now. Cruz’s arm is great and hiding him in right field is probably the best call for now.
When the Orioles go against a lefty (if this weather ever subsides and they play again), it seems possible that Lough will get put back on the shelf, Cruz will move to LF, Markakis back to RF, and the Orioles will slot Delmon Young at first. Or, if Buck wants to throwback to the early-2000s Moneyball-era A’s, he could laugh in the face of defense and sub Young into LF in place of Lough. At the very least, he’d be DH’d in place of Flaherty of Lombardozzi. One of these options makes me very nervous, but the others seem like reasonable experiments in the short term.
Edit: The Orioles have resigned Steve Pearce and while another roster move will have to be made to bring Manny back into the fold, I don’t think he’s the one that would get the door. Pearce has played enough at first to merit a defensive spot there while Markakis jumps back to RF and Cruz moves to left, or, if Buck doesn’t want everyone moving around every day, Pearce can just be platooned in left with David Lough.
While first base can (probably) be competently manned in Davis’ stead, his absence weakens the team’s outfield significantly by allowing Nelson Cruz to see a glove.
This Orioles lineup is a lot less threatening without Chris Davis’ name on the card. Despite Adam Jones‘ steady home run contributions over the last few years and scorching starts from both Matt Wieters and Nelson Cruz, the Orioles appear toothless without the 53-home-run wonder. Really, this team has a lot of good batters, or at least guys that can put the ball over the wall. Chris Davis’ name just carries so much weight – he was getting very little to hit during the season’s first twenty games – that his absence makes this team look like a lightweight.
Without Davis, the team has been forced to play light-hitting second baseman and DH Jemile Weeks. Not only does Weeks not bring a consistent history of power or average to the plate, he doesn’t even bring a consistent Major League pedigree: Oakland was storing Weeks in the minors before he was traded to the O’s and put in Baltimore’s farm system. After a strong rookie campaign in 2012, Weeks has been unable to earn regular Major League time. This is in stark contrast to Chris Davis, who has now put together two very good seasons and appeared poised for a third before what might be a lingering oblique strain.
The Orioles can put runs on the board with or without Chris Davis. Nelson Cruz is shouldering the load for the O’s this season with a .376 OBP and .956 OPS, while Matt Wieters has pitched in with a .370 OBP and a .924 OPS. Davis was struggling to start the year, a function of varying parts injury, pressing, and getting fewer pitches to hit. Davis was triple slashing .250/.372/.382 in the opening month of the 2014 season. These are probably not the numbers many Orioles fans expected or hoped to see from the reigning league home run leader. Davis is walking plenty – 13 times in 21.5 games – but not hitting or hitting for power. There’s reason to believe that his early struggles will turn around: a 28% LD% is probably unsustainable, but Davis is typically an above-average line drive hitter, and that portends to a solid batting average, and his 6.1% HR/FB% is well below the league average and Davis’ norms as of the last two years. He’s walking more and striking out the same amount. In short, Davis’ bat seems to be fine, and even if it won’t be breaking any club records this season, the results of his at bats should improve by virtue of regression to the mean. While 2014 season average Chris Davis would be sorely missed, unlucky and small sample size Chris Davis of April is not the force that he was in 2013 and isn’t creating the crater-sized hole in the lineup he otherwise might by spending some time on the DL.
Since we’re aware that his presence doesn’t act as any sort of lineup protection for other O’s hitters, taking a two-week seat isn’t going to influence how other batters perform. Right now, it’s far too small of a sample size to say that the 3 runs per game the Orioles produce in games that Davis does not start is significant (the Orioles have scored an average of 4.5 runs per game this season). A short injury vacation, assuming Davis heals quickly and returns hitting well, is not going to break the team’s season. Right now, his absence means a less frightening lineup on paper and fewer walks, but not much else. An extended or lingering injury could be a lot more damaging to this team both offensively and defensively.