Orioles' unexpected first base surplus could prove useful one way or another

Orioles first base prospect Christian Walker is interviewed at FanFest at the Baltimore Convention Center on Dec. 12, 2015.
Orioles first base prospect Christian Walker is interviewed at FanFest at the Baltimore Convention Center on Dec. 12, 2015. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun)

LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLA. — Well, this is a problem that no one could have anticipated four months ago.

It's tough to walk through the Orioles' spring clubhouse without tripping over a big-swinging veteran first baseman or a well-regarded prospect who is trying to climb the minor league ladder to play the same position.


Back when the offseason began, there was every reason to wonder if the Orioles would arrive in spring training with the famous Abbott and Costello question hanging over their heads. They really didn't know who would be on first with 2015 major league home run king Chris Davis heading into the free-agent market and top prospects Christian Walker and Trey Mancini still in development.

Baseball operations chief Dan Duquette moved swiftly to acquire slugger Mark Trumbo to provide some more offensive punch and some much-needed insurance at first. Then the Orioles stepped up to and re-signed Davis to a gigantic seven-year contract.


Which brings us to Tuesday's exhibition opener against the Atlanta Braves at Champion Stadium, which featured performances by both Walker and Mancini that got the attention of manager Buck Showalter.

Neither player is projected to make the Orioles' 25-man roster out of spring training, and there are all sorts of ways the organization can play this particular talent surplus going forward. But Showalter seems content to treat them both as if they are competing for a chance to open the season in the major leagues.

"You talk about it all the time, the what-ifs at every position," Showalter said, "because we saw last year with Chris, with Matt [Wieters], with J.J. [Hardy], with Jon [Schoop], with Adam [Jones] — sometimes the things that separate [teams] in a long season is the ability to maintain a certain level of play when you have the challenges those injuries bring on there."

Of course, you know it's not that simple — not when the Orioles are still believed to be seeking another veteran outfielder. Club officials already have discussed schooling Walker in the outfield at some point so they won't necessarily have to choose between him and Mancini if both pop at the same time.

Keep in mind that in a perfect Orioles world, Davis will be hitting 40-something home runs per year in an Orioles uniform through 2022, at which time Walker will be 31 years old and Mancini will be 30. Something's got to give.

"If they can play and they can hit, there's going to be a place for them in the big leagues," Duquette said Tuesday. "If they are athletic, there may be another place for them on the diamond in Baltimore. If not, I'm sure there are other clubs that can use capable athletic players."

There are other clubs that can probably use Walker right now, which is why there has been speculation that he would be in play if Duquette decides to get serious about a deal for Cincinnati Reds right fielder Jay Bruce.

Duquette steers away from that kind of talk, but he's not above advertising the value of a couple of top prospects at a time when a lot of baseball pundits are giving the Orioles very low marks for the depth of their minor league system.

The perceived quality of the club's player development system is a sore subject with Duquette, who points to the first base surplus as an example of what happens when you hold the veteran nucleus of your team together.


"We have good depth to our minor league operation and we've had a winning team in the big leagues," he said. "We've spent more time building a winning team in the big leagues. Harry Dalton once told me years ago, 'If you don't have a big league team, you have to sell your minor league operation.' I've always remembered that.

"There are a lot of players in the farm system that clubs have requested in trade, but we'd like to take a look at them to see if they can help our club first."


Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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