How Orioles will handle first base in 2024 (Orioles claim Davidson)

The Orioles set up a competition at first base in spring training that became one of the more interesting follows for media and fans. About as engrossing as possible for a backup job. The tallying of stats and ranking perceived leaders, breaking down their strengths and weaknesses.

Ryan Mountcastle was the undisputed starter, of course, but the non-roster invites included Ryan O’Hearn, Franchy Cordero, Lewin Díaz, Josh Lester and Curtis Terry. Quite a crowd.

Díaz was the first to go, with the Orioles reassigning him on March 20 while he dealt with right shoulder soreness. He didn’t make it back to the majors despite batting .268/.362/.442 with 21 doubles, 17 home runs and 64 RBIs in 118 games with Triple-A Norfolk.

Terry was released March 26 and spent the summer playing for the independent Gastonia Honey Hunters of the Atlantic League and Lake Country DockHounds of the American Association. Cordero exercised the opt-out clause in his contract the following day, signed with the Yankees, had four home runs and 11 RBIs in his first seven games, returned to earth and batted .188/.211/.478 with six homers and 13 RBIs in 24 games.

O’Hearn and Lester were reassigned March 27.

Competitions usually have a winner, but not this one.

“Impressed by all of them,” executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias said after the latest round of cuts on March 27.

“With some of the other things that we’re having to do with our 40-man, we’re unlikely to be adding there.”

Lester, who’s a minor league free agent and unlikely to return, appeared in 11 games and went 4-for-22 with four RBIs. He finished with 21 doubles, 23 home runs and 87 RBIs in 110 games with Norfolk.

O’Hearn was the real success story, becoming a finalist for American League Comeback Player in the Major League Baseball Players Association’s Players Choice Awards. He batted .289/.322/.480 with 22 doubles, a triple, 14 homers and 60 RBIs in 112 games and occupied a spot in the middle of the order against right-handed pitching.

In one of those crazy, unexpected twists in a season, O’Hearn went from being a player designated for assignment two days after the Orioles acquired him to making 59 starts and 70 appearances at first base. Only Mountcastle had more.

O’Hearn was hitless in his last 23 at-bats heading into the Division Series, but the slump couldn’t ruin all the good, including his .349 average and .891 OPS with runners in scoring position and career-high 1.4 fWAR and 1.2 bWAR.

Plucked from the pile of questions facing the Orioles this winter is whether they’re set at first base. The quick response is “yes.” projects Mountcastle to receive a raise to $4.2 million in arbitration after he batted .270/.328/.452 with 21 doubles, 18 home runs and 68 RBIs in 115 games. He missed 32 games with vertigo and left AC joint inflammation but slashed .326/.407/.492 with nine doubles, seven homers, 29 RBIs, 25 walks and 30 runs scored after returning from the IL on July 9.

Mountcastle’s .655 slugging percentage and 1.052 OPS against left-handed pitching ranked fifth in majors and second in the AL behind Tampa Bay’s Yandy Díaz (.669/1.101). And he’s a Rawlings Gold Glove finalist.

“I’m just happy I battled back through a couple tough times,” Mountcastle said after the Game 3 loss to the Rangers, “and just to be out there on the field for the postseason, I was super pumped about it.”

The Orioles could search for more non-roster invites for Triple-A depth. They’ll also have corner infielder Coby Mayo, the No. 27 prospect in baseball, per MLB Pipeline, who should debut in 2024. But he’d be a long shot to break camp with the team. Give him a little more time.

Anthony Santander made his first seven career starts and 12 appearances at first base this season, which presents him as a backup option if the Orioles don’t bite on a trade offer. Ramón Urías made his first seven starts and 13 appearances, but he doesn’t have a roster spot secured. Heston Kjerstad played first base in the minors but didn’t earn favorable reviews and is viewed as a corner outfielder.

The Orioles will continue working on Kjerstad's defense. He's too young, and the flexibility of the designated hitter spot is too important, to keep him away from the field. 

Being trusted to play first base would be a bonus. The Orioles seem to have decent coverage at the position.

* The Orioles’ minor league deal with reliever Nathan Webb became official on Monday. The news of an agreement broke a week ago.

Webb is assigned to Norfolk. The contract covers two seasons and includes an invitation to spring training.

Webb, 26, hasn’t pitched in the majors. He underwent Tommy John surgery at the end of spring training and the Pirates released him on Oct. 16. The former 34th-round draft pick has registered a 6.11 ERA and 1.604 WHIP in 110 games over six minor league seasons, and he’s averaged 4.6 walks and 10.1 strikeouts per nine innings.

* The Orioles have a full 40-man roster after claiming left-hander Tucker Davidson, 27, off waivers today from the Royals.

Davidson was a 19th-round  pick of the Braves in the 2016 draft out of Midland College in Texas. He’s also pitched for the Angels and Royals and posted a 5.98 ERA and 1.616 WHIP in 55 games, including 17 starts.

Davidson appeared in 18 games with the Angels and 20 with the Royals this year and registered a 5.96 ERA and 1.617 WHIP in 51 1/3 innings. He’s averaged 4.8 walks and 7.1 strikeouts in nine innings in his major league career.

Left-handed batters hit .268/.403/.529 against Davidson and right-handers hit .278/.351/.431. He’s faced the Orioles once and allowed two runs in 1 2/3 innings.

Davidson started Game 5 of the 2021 World Series after the Braves chose him as an injury replacement for Charlie Morton. He allowed four runs (two earned) in two innings against the Astros.

For Ryan Mountcastle, it was a tale of two seasons...
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