The Orioles have their biggest offensive threat at first base in the form of Chris Davis. There have not been many better all-around hitters the past two seasons than Davis who – even with an expected regression out of non-human range – should be the slugging force behind the Birds’ 2014 offense. Behind that force of nature lies – well – not much. Steve Pearce is likely the 1B backup on the Major League roster with Rule 5 pick Michael Almanzar as a real longshot to make the roster. Christian Walker is an interesting prospect but no sure thing and still likely two seasons away from contributing. Chris Marrero – acquired as a minor league free agent – is probably he Norfolk starter at the position but at this point in his career is little more than minor league depth.
Major League Starter
Chris Davis (Bats: L; Throws: L; Age: 28)
It is sort of hard to believe that at this time last year, the starting first base spot was considered an unresolved issue for the Orioles.
The organization threw its support behind Chris Davis who was coming off of a .270/.326/.501 line in his age 26-season. From a purely offensive standpoint, Davis’ 2012 performance indicated he could handle first base duties although there were those who worried that 2012 marked his ceiling and he was bound to regress. The biggest concern in handing Davis the starting first base gig in 2012 was that – despite a history and reputation as an average defender at first – struggled at that position in 2012. Fans worried that Davis would have to move to DH and the Orioles would be left without an adequate substitution at first. Dan Duquette hedged against that scenario somewhat by signing strong defensive first baseman Travis Ishikawa as an emergency backup.
Travis was not need needed. Davis went onto not only play solid defense at first, but to have a historically strong season at the plate finishing with a .286/.370/.634 line with 53 homeruns. The O’s have their first baseman locked in – at least through 2015 when Davis’ current contract expires. While it is very likely that Chris’ production takes a hit this year – he has little place to go but down given his gaudy 2013 performance – but he now has a solid two-year track records that suggests he will be a valuable major league hitter for the foreseeable future.
He will be a valuable all-around hitter at that. It was his power display that caught national attention last season, but Davis has a combined .278/.350/.571 line from 2012 – 2013. He is likely never going to put up the tidy .300/.400/.500 line that is considered somewhat ideal. However, pitchers are likely to continue pitching him carefully and as he showed last season, he has enough patience to take advantage of that. A .280/.360/.540 line feels like a reasonable midway point for next season.
Major League Backup
Steve Pearce (Bats: R; Throws: R; Age: 31)
Steve Pearce likely qualifies as Chris Davis’ backup at the major league level. Steve Pearce will enter spring training – as he always has in his career – fighting for a roster spot. With essentially three roster spots open for a 1B/DH/corner OF type and theoretically six candidates vying for them, Pearce has a good shot of sticking. The Orioles like him and don’t want to lose him, so the fact that he is out of minor league options will likely play in his favor.
Pearce has logged 679 major league innings at first. He is a capable – although probably a bit below average – defender who the team can run out there as needed. If Davis were to miss a significant chunk of the season, Pearce would be likely be afforded the first opportunity to take over with few obvious options behind him.
Christian Walker (Bats: R; Throws: R; Age: 31)
Walker is the Orioles best first base prospect and quite frankly, the only legitimate first base prospect in their system. Drafted out of South Carolina University in 2012, Walker had a very productive season in 2013 – his first full one as a pro. Starting with class A Delmarva, he got all the way to Bowie by the end of the season where he will likely begin the 2014 season. Walker flash moderate skills all around in his first full season by hitting for average (.300), walking at an okay 7.8% clip (with seven HBP bringing his OBP up quite a bit), and showing okay power to the tune of a .153 ISO.
The power department is one area to keep an eye on for Walker. He displayed a good hitting tool in the minors and in college, but will likely need to display more power to stick in the major as a regular first baseman. As it stands right now, he probably profiles similarly to James Loney, which is not the worst thing in the world. More important than showing improved power is for Walker to simply have a good full season in Bowie akin to what he produced last season at the A and A+ levels. Such a season could theoretically provide the Orioles some peace of mind that if they are without Chris Davis after the 2015 season.
Michael Almanzar (Bats: R; Throws: R; Age 23)
In a somewhat curious move, the Orioles used their major league Rule 5 draft pick to select corner infielder Michael Almanzar from the Red Sox organization. In the prior two Rule 5 drafts, the Birds choose players (Ryan Flaherty and TJ McFarland) who were close to Major League ready and could be reasonably stashed on the 25-man roster for an entire season. Almanzar will have far more difficulty lasting in the big leagues for a full year.
Almanzar was a highly-thought of international free agent when he signed with Boston as a 17 year old in 2008. However, the young Dominican failed to hit much at all throughout his first four pro seasons and played subpar defense to boot. He is credited with being a hard worker, however, and that hard work might be bearing fruit at last. In his first full season in the Carolina League in 2012, Almanzar finished with a slash line of .300/.353/.458. He followed that up with a .268/.328/.432 line last season in the AA Eastern League. Reports are that his defense at 3B has also improved to the point where he might be able to stick there, but 1B is also an option.
Perhaps Almanzar is just a late bloomer at age-23, he comes to camp in Sarasota looking major league-ready. I would not bet on that, however. That hope appears to be the logic behind the Orioles’ selection of Almanzar but the odds are against him sticking. He does not have the track record that either Flaherty or McFarland had when selected in the Rule 5 draft and both of those players were far from sure bets to stick as well. In order of likelihood, I would rank Almanzar being returned to Boston, a trade being worked out, and him making the roster out of Spring training from most to least likely. It would not shock me if the Orioles worked out a trade with Boston who does seem expendable to that organization.