With Mark Reynolds heading to Cleveland and the Baltimore Orioles not bringing in another serious contender for the first base job in the off season, it appears that Chris Davis is the de facto incumbent at that position. As you might remember, Davis was aquired in a trade with Texas in 2011 that also sent Tommy Hunter to Baltimore in exchange for Koji Uehara. Last year the first base job was given to Davis out of spring training, and he played 38 games at the corner infield slot…with lackluster results. Davis had a fielding percentage of .989 and committed four errors. Mark Reynolds would later go across the diamond to occupy first base for the rest of the year, and Davis platooned at DH and in the outfield when needed.
Chris Davis hit .270 with 33 homers for the Orioles in 2012. In a sense he was also a beneficiary of circumstance in the sense that Wilson Betemit, Endy Chavez, Nick Markakis, and Jim Thome all saw significant time on the DL. Davis proved to be a very ample right fielder in Markakis’ absence, and in other cases he also served as the DH; many of those DH reps would have otherwise gone to Betemit or even Chavez. As a result of these injuries, Davis appeared in 139 games in 2012. The 33 homers were the most he had ever hit, but granted he had never played in 139 games (he did hit 21 over 113 games with Texas in 2009, so from the looks of things the power is in fact there). Moving into 2013 I think that the home run total might be a bit difficult to replicate, although don’t be surprised if he continues in that manner. However I think the Orioles would probably take a lower home run total (perhaps in the 20-25 home run range) if he could produce a higher OBP and/or RBI total. Runs are runs, right?
However here’s the dilema: what if Davis gets hot at the plate but struggles again in the field? As much as he struggled in the field in spring training and through the 38 regular season games he played at first last year, he was still hot at the plate. Down the stretch of the season he also proved to be a great teammate in the clubhouse, and a huge asset at the plate (as has been stated numerous times already in tihs column). What do the Orioles do? They did aquire Danny Valencia from Boston in the off season (potentially as a backup first baseman), but he’s actually a third baseman by trade. However I’m not talking about in the field, I’m talking more about at the plate. The fact that Davis got so many at bats last year (after losing the first base job) was due in part to injuries. Presuming that those exact same injury scenarios do not repeat, what happens at the plate?
My point is that if the Orioles are forced to remove Davis in the lineup on a daily basis, they’d be out a lot of power. Certainly Davis wouldn’t totally become a bench player, as he would get some reps at DH, however he certainly wouldn’t be an everyday player either. Nick Markakis has played some first base in the past, however Buck Showalter said in January that Markakis was not a candidate for the position. But could that change? My gut tells me no. However who knows…I’m sure that the Orioles have contingency plans.
For the record, if you plug Valencia into the lineup as the first baseman you’d be getting a career .257 hitter with a career OBP of .297 and 25 career homers. In fairness Valencia’s only played in 283 big league games, but those stats probably equal a bit of an offensive buzz kill. Realistically I think the O’s would probably plug Wilson Betemit in as the everyday first baseman, in effect flipping him and Davis. However you would then have Davis competing with the likes of Nolan Reimold, Nate McClouth, and potentially even Alexi Casilla and Brian Roberts for reps at DH.
If the 2013 Orioles are anything like the 2012 version, they’ll have that “next man up” mentality and find a way to make any lineup work out. However based on Davis’ offensive output in 2012, his bat would be a tough one to lose on a daily basis down the stretch of the season. So the best course of action for Davis would probably be to get his first baseman’s mit in order so that he doesn’t give Buck Showalter a reason to consider replacing him in the field. I would submit that the upcoming Grapefruit League season is supremely important to Davis so as to get himself in order in the field. For the record, Texas was very hesitant to let Davis go in that trade due in part to his prowess on defense at first base (and of course his bat). Many Texas scouts were surprised that Davis struggled so mightily in the field last season, so there’s every chance that Davis “kills it” in the field this season. That’s certainly the hope, as the Orioles sure can’t afford to lose his bat. If all else fails, they could simply make him a starting pitcher and surrender their DH each game!