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Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Matt Wieters’ trip to the DL comes at a crucial time for the Baltimore Orioles

By on 5/13/2014 10:00:00 AM

The Baltimore Orioles weren’t as active this winter as other American League East teams, yet they’re one of the better-performing squads in baseball so far this season. After seeing the kind of production they’ve gotten from key players, it makes their start more impressive, along with the injury to Matt Wieters even more disappointing.

If someone told manager Buck Showalter his squad would be in first place with a 20-16 record, he'd be ecstatic. He'd also be confused after finding out Manny Machado had suited up for only 11 games, J.J. Hardy owned a .321 slugging percentage, Adam Jones had a .279 on-base percentage and Chris Davis hit just two home runs.

How could Baltimore be in first place without these guys producing like they have in the past?

The acquisition of Nelson Cruz has been very helpful. The right-handed hitter owns a .270/.338/.533 line with 10 home runs and 30 RBI in 137 at-bats. Wieters has also been a crucial piece to the Orioles’ offense while others have struggled.

The 27-year-old catcher has enjoyed a .308/.339/.500 line with five home runs and 18 RBI through his first 104 at-bats. With the lack of production from the rest of the lineup, Wieters’ fast start has been a vital piece toward Baltimore’s success.

He’d been battling a right elbow strain and was limited designated hitter duty before the organization finally put him on the disabled list over the weekend.

Steve Clevenger and Caleb Joseph are expected to shoulder the load with Wieters on the sideline. Clevenger has hit well through 46 at-bats, posting a .304/.360/.522 line. Joseph is getting his first taste of big league action, hitless in his first seven at-bats.

There is hope surgery won’t be necessary, but if Wieters can't throw by July 1, that may be the only option left.

The backstop did club 22 home runs and collected 79 RBI in 2013, but wasn’t very consistent, posting a .235/.287/.417 line in 523 at-bats.

His bat will certainly be missed, but Showalter is counting on Machado, Davis, Jones and Hardy to pick up the slack.

An equally big loss is Wieters’ presence behind the plate. Since appearing in 96 games as a rookie in 2009, he hasn’t played less than 130 in a season. That includes more than 140 games over the last two years.

The pitching staff must now adjust to not having him behind the plate on what seemed to be a nightly basis. Clevenger will likely be grabbing most of the playing time because of his big league experience and familiarity with the team’s pitchers.

Baltimore’s collective 4.07 ERA ranks 21st in baseball, so there isn’t much room for error moving forward. Their bullpen has performed reasonably well, but the starting rotation is crucial. Showalter needs to get consistent length out of his starters so the bullpen doesn’t get overworked by the end of the summer.

These last two weeks of May are important for the Orioles before the calendar flips to June. Matchups with the Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals and Milwaukee Brewers will be tough, but they have a few games where they should be expected to win the majority of.

Those games include matchups with teams such as the Pittsburgh Pirates, Cleveland Indians and Houston Astros.

Once they get to June, Baltimore will be suiting up for 17 games against AL East teams. They’ll also have to deal with the Texas Rangers and Oakland Athletics.

The severity of Wieters’ injury is still unknown. He will be resting it for now, but Showalter isn’t even expecting his catcher back until July. Avoiding surgery is far from a guarantee because his prognosis is still cloudy.

In the AL East, there is only a 5.5-game difference between the first-place team and last-place team. Now isn't the time to go through a long losing streak. Plenty of games remain, but how Baltimore performs over the next month or two may be telling as to how its season ends come September.

It would've been nice to have a healthy Wieters both behind and at the plate for this important run, but that isn’t the case. The Orioles are fortunate to have the rest of their lineup healthy, especially with the return of Davis on Sunday after suffering an oblique strain.

It’s up to him and the rest of the lineup to produce without their catcher, who has been one of the most productive Baltimore hitters this season.

You can follow Matt on Twitter: @mmusico8.

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