CHICAGO -- With the news already out, the Orioles’ brass was ready to put the best possible face on the fact that third baseman Manny Machado will have to miss the remainder of the season with an injury to his right knee almost identical to the one he suffered to his left knee last season. Beyond the big-picture question of how well and how soon one of the game’s most exciting young stars will recover, having this happen to a first-place team automatically creates stretch-run questions of how well the Orioles will adjust.
Meeting with reporters before the game, general manager Dan Duquette acknowledged, “Manny came to us yesterday and said his knee wasn't responding to the rest … He has a very similar injury to his right knee that he had last year to his left knee. … Given this injury and the time of the season, we thought that we would rest it and try to recover and play for the rest of the year. But Manny didn’t feel like that was the best option.”
But manager Buck Showalter was quick to refer to the resilience the Orioles have shown all season, saying, “I don’t get in that ‘woe is me, the earth is shaking, the sky is falling’ mentality. We’ve played 40-50 games without him. … We’d like to have him, but life goes on, baseball goes on. It’s not uncharted territory for this team.”
But with the waiver-trade deadline around the corner, you have to wonder if the Orioles aren’t going to make a move while there’s still time. Showalter said, “I’m looking at the people we have here, the people we have in Norfolk, the people we have in Bowie, and lean on the versatility of our players.”
On a practical level, that’s because there may not be that many options that fit the Orioles’ needs right now. As Duquette observed, “There is a very limited pool of players that are available at this time of the year, because a lot of players' contracts don’t get through the trade/waiver process, so it’s a very limited pool. I think we have some pretty good depth in-house, and we’ve had some players step up -- like Steve Pearce -- and do a good job. We’re going to continue to need players to step up in those situations.”
Pearce will be part of the solution to fill the need for power hitter at-bats to replace Machado, but that will be at his best position, first base. That’s because Chris Davis is being challenged to show if he can still handle third base. You might well worry, because although Davis split time between first and third as a prospect working his way up through the Rangers’ farm system, he was always expected to end up at first, and because he hadn’t played an inning at the hot corner in two years since starting 25 games there for the Rangers and Orioles in 2011. But after Davis was pressed into action at third during Machado’s suspension in June and after it didn’t prove embarrassing, he is the obvious choice to get most of the starts at third, especially with Pearce and Delmon Young both hitting their way into the lineup at first base and DH (or left field when Nelson Cruz DH’s).
While Davis can't provide Machado’s range and quickness, he does at least boast a strong arm, so you can understand how it might seem survivable. It isn’t as though we haven’t seen teams win after making sacrifices on defense at third: The Tigers and Giants both won pennants in 2012 with Miguel Cabrera and Pablo Sandoval not providing a ton of value afield, and the Cardinals won a couple of pennants and a World Series without David Freese making anyone forget Terry Pendleton.
That’s in the abstract, though, but the problem of playing the comparatively less-mobile Davis regularly at third presents a challenge for more defense-dependent pitchers. Orioles pitchers rank 11th overall in the league in strikeout rate (18.8 percent), the lowest mark of any contending team in the AL. So it shouldn't surprise you to learn that the Orioles have been getting the benefit of one of the highest Defensive Efficiency marks in baseball, converting 70.4 percent of all balls in play into outs, the third-best rate in the AL.
Obviously, that number is in danger of going down with Davis at third. Fortunately for them, none of the Orioles’ starting pitchers is an extreme ground-ball guy, with none of them rating more than average in groundout/fly-ball-out ratio. However, it’s in the pen where guys like Zach Britton, Tommy Hunter and T.J. McFarland generate a ton of ground-ball outs. Result? You shouldn't be surprised to see Davis switched off third or out of the game for a defensive replacement in the later innings.
The other added-on risk is whether or not Pearce will be overexposed at the plate in full-time play. Pearce already has 100 more at-bats so far than he got all of last year or in any major league season in his career. With a .785 OPS against righties so far this season, you wouldn't pigeonhole him as a platoon hitter, but on his career, he has a .664/.856 righty-lefty split that should make O’s fans worry. If that’s the shape of things to come, the Orioles’ heavily right-handed lean in the lineup could become a significant handicap down the stretch. We'll see if they add a lefty bat who can play the infield and/or outfield corners to help with that, but as Duquette observed, it won't be easy.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.