SARASOTA, Fla. — Chris Davis blames himself.
He came to the Orioles in 2011 with the reputation of being a pretty good defensive first baseman during his formative years with the Texas Rangers, but he never looked comfortable at first base last season and only played one game there after May 28.
"I have not shied away from the fact that the reason I struggled last year was because I didn't put the work in early in spring training,'' Davis said. "Looking back, I should have done more during spring training. That being said, you can't change the past. Obviously, I'm doing everything I can right now to be the defensive first baseman that I was."
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Ed Smith Stadium, 2700 12th Street, Sarasota, FL 34237, USA
Not that his contribution to the team last year was anything but positive. Davis performed well in a variety of other roles, and Mark Reynolds made a surprisingly successful switch from third to first last summer. But — with Reynolds gone — first base has become a very important position this spring.
So, Davis is working daily on both the basics and the more subtle aspects of the position so he can re-establish himself as the everyday first baseman. Considering how well he adapted to the outfield — and the pitchers mound, for that matter — going back to a more familiar defensive role would not seem to be a big problem.
It certainly wasn't a problem when the Orioles opened the Grapefruit League exhibition season Saturday against the Minnesota Twins at Ed Smith Stadium. Davis made a great pick on a one-hop throw from third baseman Manny Machado and stole a couple of hits with two impressive diving plays. He also hit safely in both his at-bats.
"This guy can do it,'' manager Buck Showalter said. "I have no doubt he can do it. But it's up to him and he's going to get the opportunity. He also knows that things aren't open-ended here. If we're not getting done somewhere, we'll make an adjustment. I've got a lot of faith in him. I've got too many things pointing in his decision. Our lineup works a whole lot better if he can do it."
He's got to play somewhere, considering he is the most explosive power bat in the Orioles lineup. Davis led the club with 33 homers in a breakout 2012 season that also included a team-leading 85 RBIs. The 1-0 record and 0.00 ERA as an emergency relief pitcher was just gravy.
"I'm excited about it,'' Davis said. "I think last year was big for me, offensively, to prove that I could do it day in and day out on a consistent basis. But it really bothered me that I didn't stay at first base. I understand that we had injuries and I kind of had to bounce around, and I'm completely OK with that because it was what was best for the team, but it means a lot for me to be the everyday first baseman."
He's got quite a support staff, starting with third base coach and infield instructor Bobby Dickerson, who has been putting Davis through a variety of drills to get him into the best position to succeed. Former Orioles shortstop Mike Bordick also has worked with Davis on fielding technique.
"His head is in the right place,'' Dickerson said. "He's saying all the right things. Now, he has to back it up. Physically, there is no reason he can't. When you look at what he brings — his hands, his feet, he can run. He does a lot of things that a lot of big guys don't, but he's going to have to work at it."
This is the point where it's important to knock down a popular misconception about first base. It is not, as some people assume, an easy position that anyone with a number on his back can play. That's why it was such a revelation when Reynolds went over there and played so impressively after playing almost exclusively at third base during his five previous major league seasons.
"Mark played outstanding, and I'm not going to take that away from him,'' Davis said. "Mark came off the DL or came back from Florida and played a few games at first and made some outstanding plays. That was our best defensive lineup last year with him at first base."
Davis, for all the key hits and mammoth home runs, knows that the emphasis on great defense in the second half last year was a major reason the Orioles were able to pull out of a midseason funk and drive all the way to their first playoff appearance in 15 years. He wants to be a part of that. He wants to be a big part of that.
"We might as well have had Team Gold Glove,'' he said.
The front office isn't taking any chances. In the event that Davis does not succeed in re-establishing himself as a dependable first baseman, baseball operations chief Dan Duquette has brought in defensive specialist Travis Ishikawa to help smooth over any rough patches.
That's just good planning, but Davis wants you to know that he isn't focused on just being an adequate first baseman who's going to hold onto the position because of what he is able to do at the plate.
He wants to be part of Team Gold Glove — with the hardware to prove it.
"Absolutely, I think that should be the goal for the starting nine,'' he said. "I think that's something that, it's an old cliché, 'defense wins championships' but it's true. You saw how much better we got defensively last year at the end of the year and how much it helped us out."
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.