Prior to starting in left field in Tuesday’s game, Baltimore Orioles prospect Christian Walker had never played a professional inning of outfield. He acquitted himself well, even throwing out Troy Tulowitzki attempting to go first-to-third. Walker has never been known for his defense in four minor-league seasons, but to have any chance at making the Orioles out of spring training, he is going to have to show plenty of positional versatility.
That’s what happens when the front office locks up Chris Davis to a massive seven-year contract. Davis had played a little bit of outfield last season and in years prior, but he will be doing nothing of the sort over the next seven years with the Orioles. If the team is to have any hope of getting its money worth out of Davis, every effort will have to be made to keep him as healthy and fresh as possible. That means no extra running in the outfield. No chasing fly balls. No running into walls. No hitting the cut-off man. Chris Davis is the first baseman in Baltimore, and he may as well be the only player worth considering for at least four years.
Where exactly does that leave the smooth-hitting Walker, a fourth-round pick and a top-10 prospect in the Orioles’ system by some evaluators?
Looking for a new position, that’s where. Walker has already done as much as possible to show the Orioles he is worthy of a spot on a big-league bench with his bat. He has a career .280/.348/.453 line since entering the system’s ranks in 2012. Walker has a good approach at the plate and continues to develop power. All of those qualities make him at least worthy of consideration for a backup first base job.
Unfortunately, the Orioles have too many first base/DH types on their roster. The presence of Mark Trumbo, Pedro Alvarez, and even Matt Wieters (who should be expected to take a few turns at first base) negate the need for Walker on the 25-man roster as a backup infielder. His chances of making the roster are also not helped by the fact that he bats from the right side. Again, the Orioles are very well-stocked with right-handed bats.
To have any shot of making the team, Walker will have to prove he can handle the outfield. The Orioles still have plenty of shuffling to do in the outfield. Hyun Soo Kim is perceived to have a bead on the starting job in left field, but has struggled mightily all spring. Nolan Reimold, another option for left field has struggled as well. Trumbo is forced into the right field hole with the addition of Alvarez. Joey Rickard and L.J. Hoes may claim a spot on the final roster as late-inning defensive specialists. If Walker continues to hit well, and he did add his third home run of spring training in this afternoon’s victory, showing some ability to play the outfield could be enough to push him ahead of Reimold for the role of fourth outfielder.
The Orioles appear very willing to accept below-average corner-outfield defense on this year’s roster, so it may not take much from Walker in the fly-ball catching department to see his name on the roster when final cuts are made.
This move to the outfield also makes sense on other levels. Trey Mancini conquered Single-A and Double-A pitching last year to the tune of .341/.375/.563 with 70 extra-base hits. The Notre Dame product has hit .315/.356/.478 in three seasons and is ready for a taste of Triple-A. You can knock Mancini for a lack of athleticism, but his slash lines don’t lie. He can hit, and the Orioles need to see what he can do at the highest level of the minor leagues.
Either Walker or Mancini may eventually become trade bait. There’s just not much reason to keep them both around, especially if they are both limited to playing first base. Of the two, Walker seems the better athlete, more suited to making an attempt at playing outfield. If the Orioles are serious about making Walker a left fielder, the best option may be to option him to Triple-A and pencil him in as the starter for two months. If the big-league outfield situation is still murky, give him a chance to contribute off the bench.
In no way are the Orioles hurt by trying Christian Walker in left field. He remains one of the organization’s most big-league ready prospects. As is such, finding a creative path for him to the major leagues seems to be a very smart choice. He does project as a hitter could have a career at the next level, and could eventually become valuable to the Orioles if Davis transitions to DH. Or, if both Walker and Mancini continue hitting well in the minors, one of them can be flipped to fill a more immediate need. All in all, giving Christian Walker a few spring-training innings in left field can only help the Orioles in the long run.