Sunday, September 9, 2012

Playing without Markakis (again) will not be easy

Heading down the stretch, the Orioles could not afford to lose one of their best players. Nick Markakis is certainly one of those names. And now, for the second time this season, the O's will need to battle on without Markakis, who broke his left thumb courtesy of an errant fastball from CC Sabathia last night in a 5-4 win over the Yankees and is out for the rest of the regular season.

Markakis had already missed a portion of the season -- part of May, all of June, and some of July -- with a broken hamate bone in his right wrist. But when he returned, Buck Showalter decided to bat Markakis leadoff. And that decision has proved to be extremely wise: After returning, Markakis batted .335/.390/.489 in 54 games. For an O's lineup with the fourth-worst on-base percentage in the American League and that has been in the middle of the pack at scoring runs, losing Markakis really hurts. And let's not forget to mention the toughness of Markakis, who arguably returned a little too early from his right wrist injury but has still been raking ever since.

What should the O's do? There aren't many options. Nate McLouth could shift from left to right field, meaning a platoon of Lew Ford (against lefties) and Xavier Avery (against righties) could occupy left field. Chris Davis, Ryan Flaherty, Steve Tolleson, and Wilson Betemit have also played at least some outfield for the O's this season, though they're not really outfielders. But don't be surprised if one or more of them receive occasional playing time.

Unless the O's get extremely lucky and guys like Ford, Avery, and Davis, etc. play out of their minds for the next few weeks, replicating Markakis's bat will be nearly impossible. But they should be able to improve the outfield defense with Markakis out, especially with a McLouth/Jones/Avery outfield. Yes, Markakis won a Gold Glove in 2011, but a lot of that defensive value came from his arm (he had 14 assists). He's only had three assists in 2012, and he also hasn't looked as spry out there as he's looked in the past. McLouth, who's played a pretty good left field for the O's, has more speed and a decent arm, so he should be able to play a more than adequate right field.

I'm also interested to see who will bat first. Showalter typically alternates right- and left-handed batters in the lineup, but he may not have that luxury without Markakis, unless he simply plugs in Avery, which isn't all that likely. Avery, 22, had some bright spots in 25 games earlier this season, hitting .233/.317/.356, but pitchers seemed to figure him out the longer he played.

But maybe Avery will catch fire, or maybe someone else will. Unbelievably, the O's have a 78-61 record on September 9 and are tied with the Yankees for first place in the AL East. Their chances of making the playoffs without Markakis aren't promising, but, really, they've never looked good anyway. This team was never supposed to make it this far. And I'm not going to be the one to say they can't still somehow make it to the postseason. It won't be easy, but when was it supposed to be that way, especially for the O's?