A dumpster fire. A black hole. A void. An automatic out. Call it what you will; left field was a lot of things for the 2015 Baltimore Orioles, none of them good. After losing Nelson Cruz to free agency, a motley crew of assorted spare parts combined to slash .210/.287/.353. Replacing Cruz’s league-leading 40 home runs wasn’t supposed to be easy, but still, better results were expected.
The bottom-five production from the left field position last year no doubt contributed to a wildly inconsistent offense. The Orioles ultimately scrapped to an 81-81 record and missed the playoffs. The front office made attempts to shore up the corner outfield spots over the winter, making a run at Yoenis Cespedes and Dexter Fowler (so close!) but landing neither. Hyun Soo Kim was imported from the KBO and given a tenuous grip on the starting job in left field entering Spring Training.
Kim showed up to camp looking out of shape and struggled mightily, pressing at the plate as he attempted to prove himself to his American teammates. He looked awful, and the Orioles made a bold attempt to force him to accept an assignment to Triple-A. Surprise rookie sensation and Rule 5 pick Joey Rickard won the starting left field job, and Nolan Reimold claimed another backup spot.
For the first few weeks of the season, Rickard took the league by storm before word got out that he had a hard time handling fastballs on the hands and offspeed pitches. Right around the time Rickard’s batting average began nosediving, Buck Showalter gave in and began playing Kim more consistently, especially against right-handed starters. Reimold and Rickard also see consistent playing time in the corners, ensuring that Mark Trumbo‘s time spent with a fielder’s glove on his hand is minimized.
There were very low expectations for the trio of Rickard, Reimold, and Kim entering the regular season. Two of the three may not have even claimed a roster spot for Opening Day if Fowler had elected to sign with the Orioles. Rickard should have flamed out after a brief taste of stardom. Kim could not hit a fastball, and his defense was suspect. Reimold was a 32-year-old retread with a laundry list of injury concerns.
Somehow, someway, Showalter has managed to cajole top-10 production out of this trio of misfit toys. Kim’s swing has somehow translated in a wildly successful way after he worked into shape and got comfortable in a major-league dugout. He’s been embraced by his teammates, in no small part due to his .339/.431/.458 line. Kim is nearly impossible to strike out, and sprays the ball to all fields. No matter how awkward his swing can look at times, Kim has masterfully placed the ball, seemingly at will. Shift against him at your own risk, as he has beaten it quite consistently.
Rickard briefly cooled, and it became apparent his constant presence in the leadoff spot could bring the Orioles down. Given a chance to platoon, Rickard has hit .341/.370/.500 in June. Reimold has not been spectacular, but his consistency in the bottom half of the lineup was sorely missed last season. Showalter has found the right balance of playing time to keep the rookie productive and the veteran healthy.
With a .284/.347/.408 line this season, the Orioles may have the most underrated top-10 left field in the league. What Kim, Rickard, and Reimold lack in power from a traditionally powerful position, they make up for in pure consistency. With Manny Machado, Mark Trumbo, Chris Davis, and red-hot Adam Jones and Jonathan Schoop doing the heavy lifting, the Orioles do not need another 30 home runs out of their left fielders to win ballgames. Last year’s left fielders were a massive disappointment in Baltimore, and Buck Showalter often seemed unsure of who to trot out on a daily basis.
That’s all changed in 2016, as the skipper has found the right buttons to press when it comes to the ‘7’ spot in this defensive alignment. Surprisingly, a platoon of three players has turned in overwhelmingly positive results so far this season. While the third baseman or first baseman will garner the MVP votes, the left fielders in Baltimore have been just as important for the first-place club.