Where the Baltimore Orioles backup first base battle stands
By Timmy Wilcox
A look at the Baltimore Orioles' depth chart at first base midway through spring training
As the halfway point in spring training approaches, there have been many intriguing position battles to watch in Orioles camp. Atop the list has been the competition for who will back up Ryan Mountcastle at first base. The names most primarily in the mix have been Ryan O’Hearn, Lewin Diaz, and Franchy Cordero with others still in the hunt.
Ryan O’Hearn, a non-roster invitee to spring training, has been drawing eyes for his abilities at the plate. In a back and forth battle last Monday, O’Hearn belted a three-run bomb to left center to walk it off for the Birds. This spring he is hitting an impressive .474 (9 for 19) with a double, home run and four RBI. The 29-year-old who Baltimore acquired in a January trade with Kansas City has shown good plate discipline too with his 3:3 strikeout-to-walk ratio contributing to his .545 OBP this spring.
O’Hearn brings a diverse skill set to the team as he bats left-handed and can play positions other than first. This Spring, the Orioles have used O’Hearn at first base and in the corner outfield positions. O’Hearn also brings the most big-league experience out of this position group with 342 games played and 38 career home runs. Last season in 63 games with the Royals, he recorded a .239 AVG slashing a homer, six doubles and 16 RBI.
This past Saturday however, O’Hearn attempted a leaping play in the outfield and tweaked his knee. He is waiting on MRI results but feels confident that he will be back on the field soon according to MASN’s Steve Melewski. If he can return soon and continue to produce, he should be the front-runner for the roster spot.
First baseman Lewin Diaz had himself a crazy offseason as he was DFA’d and claimed many times by a handful of teams. Now, with Baltimore for at least this spring, the lefty finds himself in the first base mix. This spring, all of Diaz’s appearances in the field have been at first base which may cost him in the versatility department. However, he has hit the ball relatively well with a pair of doubles and a home run en route to a .375 OBP.
The 26-year-old's defense has caught the eye of Brandon Hyde, the O’s skipper mentioned in a presser:
"I’m gonna keep giving him opportunities because it’s really interesting, and the way he can play defense is extraordinary."- Brandon Hyde, Orioles Manager
Diaz brings 112 games of MLB experience, all of which with the Marlins where he has belted 13 career home runs. A struggle for him has been his plate discipline with 19 walks to just 99 career strikeouts. The Orioles would likely want to have a player who can hit the ball more for average as Diaz only hit .169 in 58 games last season with Miami but Diaz still has time to impress with his bat.
Signed Dec. 2 to a minor league contract, Franchy Cordero has placed himself in the first base conversation thanks to a hot bat this spring. With 2 doubles, a triple, and a pair of long balls the former Red Sox has slashed .478 this spring.
Cordero brings the ability to play the corner outfield spots too and has gotten opportunities in both corners this spring. With the Red Sox in 2022, 28-year-old Cordero hit 8 home runs and 29 RBI en route to a .219 AVG. In six MLB seasons spending time in San Diego, Kansas City and Boston, Cordero brings over 220 games of MLB experience to the table.
A left-handed hitter, Cordero’s strikeout numbers have always been the question mark for him. Last year with Boston, he recorded 92 strikeouts to just 28 walks, a concerningly high tally. If Cordero can improve in this department and maintain his offensive production, he could be a valuable asset for the Orioles.
Josh Lester is a name that cannot be disregarded entirely either, although it seems like he would be more likely to start the season in triple-A. The former Detroit Tiger has only appeared in two career MLB games but boasts great minor league numbers. In 2021, the corner infielder belted 32 home runs and hit .263 across double- and triple-A. A full season in triple-A Toledo last season, he surged again for 39 doubles and 29 long balls. The 28-year-old made his MLB debut on Sept. 5 but couldn't find success in his lone 5 MLB at-bats.
Given opportunities this spring after the Orioles signed him to a minor league deal on Dec. 6, Lester has been impressive. The left-handed hitter has accounted for 8 RBI on 9 for 27 hitting including a 3-run home run Monday against the Braves.
Terrin Vavra is another name in the first base conversation but likely would be utilized more as a backup for other positions. This spring 25-year-old Vavra has lit up opposing pitchers hitting .474 with two doubles, a triple and a home run. However, Vavra is still yet to play any spring games at first base. If Vavra makes the team he would likely be used to play the corner outfield spots or other infield positions. In this case, it’s possible that outfielder Anthony Santander or catchers James McCann and Adley Rutscham would play first base on Mountcastle’s off days.
With 14 spring training games remaining before Opening Day on March 30, this will be a down-to-the-wire battle for Orioles fans to keep an eye on. In the end it will likely be a tough decision for Brandon Hyde, Mike Elias and company for who they think will be the best fit. The good news for Birds fans is that this is a good problem as it demonstrates the strong depth in the organization right now.