Who's on first? O's may need to rethink position

December 21, 2010|Peter Schmuck

It's almost Christmas and the Orioles still have a gaping hole in their lineup, which makes it fair to wonder if they are so far behind Plan A when it comes to the first base situation that Andy MacPhail and Buck Showalter will be forced to shift gears and focus elsewhere to upgrade the club's run-production potential.

The O's are still believed to be in play for first baseman Adam LaRoche, but it could take a three-year deal to get him and they clearly would prefer a shorter-term option since they missed on all of the top free agent sluggers and are now in the all-too-familiar position of being down to the best remaining players in a picked-over market.

LaRoche qualifies as the best of the rest, but he's not exactly the kind of player that should make you throw your budget to the wind, which is why negotiations appear to be at a standstill.

So, what else could MacPhail do to inject 25 more home runs into the batting order and keep first base open for a future run at someone like pending free agent Prince Fielder? Some of the other possibilities are intriguing, but none are particularly attractive.

The Orioles also are dancing with veteran Derrek Lee, who's 34 and coming back from a drop-off year at the plate. But if he ends up being the best — or most cost-effective — free agent available at first base, the Orioles might be better served to juggle their defense and turn their attention to the designated hitters still looking for work.

The Orioles could, for instance, sign Jim Thome to take most of the at-bats at DH and move Luke Scott into the field, which may not be a great option defensively, but would certainly make the batting order more formidable.

Thome is 39 and he's not the frightening hitter he used to be, but he proved last season that he can still strike some fear into opposing pitchers. He had just 340 plate appearances for the Minnesota Twins last year, but hit 25 home runs in 276 at-bats and was still intimidating enough to walk once every 5.7 times up. He's also closing in on his historic 600th home run, which would be an added public relations bonus.

The other aging superstar that might be a fit at DH is Vladimir Guerrero, who proved that he was still a force to be reckoned with when he turned a one-year, $5.5 million deal with the Texas Rangers into the free agent bargain of the 2010 season. Guerrero looked like a banged-up shell of his former self at the end of a disappointing 2009 season with the Los Angeles Angels, but he came back to hit 29 homers, drive in 115 runs and help lead the Rangers to their first World Series.

Mind you, these are the kind of late-winter moves that will reinforce the notion among the most cynical fans that the Orioles are incapable of running with the big dogs in the American League, since they again have been unable — or unwilling — to assert themselves in the free agent market. But if the goal is to put a reasonably competitive team on the field this year and buy a little more time for the rebuilding project to reach full bloom, bringing in a future Hall of Famer who still has a little pop might not be a bad idea.

That would certainly create some intrigue this spring, when Showalter starts to design his new batting order and defensive alignment. He could plug the hole at first base by moving Scott back there or giving Nolan Reimold six weeks to get comfortable at the position. He might also consider moving Josh Bell to the other corner.

Obviously, none of these scenarios even remotely resembles the schematic that MacPhail brought into the offseason, so he'd probably be most comfortable convincing LaRoche to lower his demands or using Lee as a one-year stopgap, but when you get to this point in the offseason, just about anything is possible.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon Fridays and Saturdays and at 6 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays with Brett Hollander. Also, check out his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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