We continue our Baltimore Orioles 2020 preview by taking a look at first base.
Ready or not, baseball season is right around the corner. Baltimore Orioles pitchers and catchers report in less than two weeks (February 11th) and spring training action gets underway just a few days later. With the recent announcement of non-roster invitees coming to camp, excitement and anticipation around spring has quickly ticked up around Birdland, even if the 2020 regular season will be a struggle.
We are in the process of rolling out our position-by-position preview of the major league roster, having already released a breakdown of the catching position, which I urge you to read here.
Today, we take a look at first base. Just as we did with catchers, we’re going to take a look at those currently on the roster/invited to spring training, look at what went right in 2019, what went wrong, and what we can expect to see in 2020.
Without further ado, let’s get excited for a rebound season from Chris Davis!
Current 40-man options/spring invites.
The Orioles feature a long list of first base/designated hitter types on the roster, including the $161 million man himself, Chris Davis. Renato Nunez and his power bat return in 2020, while Ryan Mountcastle, the 4th-ranked first base prospect in baseball, is now on the 40-man roster and will make his big league debut at some point in 2020. Trey Mancini should be here, but we will place him with the outfielders for our preview series.
Baltimore Orioles need to make a move at first base.
Six different players logged time at first base last season, including Chris Davis (97 games), Mancini (57), Nunez (24), Rio Ruiz (12), Chance Sisco (1), and Jesus Sucre (1). We can expect to see just as many different players man the position in 2020.
As for what went right among this group, we saw a lot of power out of the bat of Renato Nunez, including 31 home runs and 24 doubles in his first full season in the major leagues. His .244 batting average, .311 on-base percentage, and wRC+ of 99 weren’t overly exciting, but the power led him to be included in a few trade discussions at last year’s deadline and this offseason.
He wasn’t in the major leagues, but Ryan Mountcastle took home International League MVP honors last season and did an impressive job of improving his defense at first base throughout the year. Early in the season, Mountcastle struggled with routine plays, but by the All-Star break, the 22-year-old was putting together a decent highlight reel of picks and plays, before being shipped to the outfield to end the season.
If we’re excluding Mancini here, out of anticipation of him spending the majority of the season in the outfield, it’s difficult to find much more that went right at first base in 2019.
What went wrong last season? Most of this comes from Chris Davis. Davis put together another unimpressive campaign, striking out in a career-high 39.5% of at-bats and posting a .179 average and 58 wRC+. The once-feared slugger managed just 12 home runs in 105 games.
While Nunez and his power were fun to watch at times in 2019, there’s serious questions as to whether or not he’s still around by the end of 2020. His low OBP and batting average numbers, along with his very limited defensive profile, won’t be attractive once more infield prospects begin making their way to the big leagues later this season.
What to expect in 2020?
We will probably have to sit through watching more Chris Davis for a while longer, although pulling the plug on Davis seems imminent in 2020.
Ryan Mountcastle will be in the big leagues this season and a number of outfielders will demand playing time throughout the season, while prospects like Yusniel Diaz could be in the big leagues by the end of the season. Removing Davis helps to clear some playing time and at-bats for more of these players and allows Mancini to move to a first base/DH role, where he’s better suited.
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In his 2020 Orioles ZiPS projections, Dan Szymborski summarizes the current status of first base at Camden Yards perfectly,
"I’m increasingly confused as to why Chris Davis is on the team. He has no offensive value, no defensive value, and tried to go after manager Brandon Hyde in the dugout (true to form, Davis didn’t get a hit here either). Even worse, Davis at first leaves Trey Mancini playing the outfield, which he does awkwardly, and blocks the most obvious play to place Ryan Mountcastle. And while I don’t think Mountcastle would actually be good, he’s better than Davis and actually has a future. Orioles, the money is gone; this is just sad."
Davis is projected to finish 2020 with a -0.9 fWAR, a .186 average, and a team-high 164 strikeouts. Nunez projects to be essentially the same exact hitter next season, finishing second on the team in home runs with 29 (Mancini projected to lead the O’s with 31).
ZiPS projects Ryan Mountcastle to hit .252 with 20 home runs and 23 doubles, similar to that of Nunez. Cut ties with Davis, see if Nunez can be traded for a lottery ticket, and end the season with Mountcastle and Mancini splitting time between 1B/DH. Done. Make it happen, Mike Elias.
Stay tuned tomorrow as we look at second base and ask whether or not Hanser Alberto can make the position his for the full season.