Even with Brian Roberts finally seeing action this Spring, there's a non-zero possibility of him missing the beginning of the season (and, even if not, a good chance of missed time later on). That leaves a hole defensively at second-base, and a hole in the lead-off spot off the line-up. Unfortunately, the main players capable of filling the position - Cesar Izturis, Robert Andino, Brendan Harris - have no business hitting at the top of a major league line-up (or possibly even a Triple-A line-up, but I digress). So who would bat first?
Judging from Spring Training, it seems like JJ Hardy might have the inside line. Hardy, if you'll recall, is probably the team's worst hitter against right-handed pitchers (and so would be second to whoever takes Roberts' spot). Batting your worst hitter 9th makes sense, and is likely what the team would do if everyone's healthy. Batting your second to worst hitter 1st makes no sense, as far as I can tell. If Hardy puts up an average OBP, that would be pretty good. And he doesn't appear to have much speed (6 career stolen bases) - not that that matters, but it's been used as reasoning before. Maybe Buck* didn't want to shift other players out of their "spots", but giving more plate appearances to a worse hitter (potentially as many as 100 over a full season) is just giving away runs (though likely not more than a handful) - and every extra run helps in The Quest for .500!
* But if he's such a great manager and leader and motivator and whatnot, shouldn't he be able to get around any potential issues an unusual line-up could cause?
Who should bat first?
Against righties the three best hitter (who should bat somewhere in the 1, 2, and 4 spots) are probably Nick Markakis (.370 wOBA), Luke Scott (.362), and Vlad Guerrero (.340). Roberts was third on that list, by the way. Derrek Lee (.335), Mark Reynolds (.335), and Adam Jones (.334) are also close behind. Given the various skill sets, it might actually make sense to bat Lee first (OBP), Markakis second (OBP), Reynolds third (HR), Luke fourth (OBP/SLG), then Vlad, Jones, etc. in descending order. Markakis-Scott one-two would also work, but leaves the top of the line-up more vulnerable to a LOOGY. Lee might ground into too many double plays to bat him second after Markakis. While none of these options gives the team a "prototypical" lead-off hitter, they're probably the best options available.
Against lefites the three best hitters are probably Vlad (.363), Reynolds (.361), and Lee (.358). That makes Lee-?-Reynolds-Vlad a solid configuration, with Markaks (.342) edging out Jones (.343) for the two-spot given his OBP edge. In this case, batting Hardy higher in the line-up could be not terrible (but not likely optimal). Still, he probably shouldn't be in the top half.
Do I think Buck Showalter would bat a veteran who hit 35 home runs as recently as 2009 in the lead-off spot? Not at all. But I'm open to being pleasantly surprised (or, alternately, hearing a good justification for another order). My hunch is that we'll get something less than ideal with a hand-wavy explanation of the reasoning though.
Stats: wOBA, Platoon Splits