Sep 2, 2014; Baltimore, MD, USA; Baltimore Orioles first basemanChris Davis
(19) hits a one RBI single in the first inning against the Cincinnati Reds at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Mandatory Credit: Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports
Yesterday, Baltimore slugger Chris Davis was strapped with a 25 game suspension for amphetamines, sidelining him for the remainder of the season and the playoffs, and leaving a a hole at the heart of the Orioles lineup. As Peter Gammons has already hinted at, could first base prospect Christian Walker step up and fill it?
After taking off in his third season as an Oriole last year, leading the game with 53 home runs and 138 RBIs en route to a third place finish in the American League MVP voting, Davis has come crashing to earth in 2014. He has the lowest qualified average in the Major Leagues (.196), the most strikeouts (178), and his on base percentage has fallen to an even .300. Still, the 28 year old had 26 dingers prior to the suspension, tied for tenth most in the American League, and he hit one out every 17.6 at bats, the 8th best rate in the AL. For a team as dependent on the long ball as the Orioles – they lead baseball with 192 round-trippers, 103 more than the Royals have hit this season – any loss of power poses a threat to their offensive solvency.
Which is where Christian Walker steps in. Six feet tall and a thick 220 pounds, Walker hit 26 home runs and slugged .489 in 532 at bats between Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk this season. As a junior at South Carolina University, the now-23 year old finished a respective second and third in the SEC in those categories.
He’s not the louisville slugger wielding giant that Davis is, but he is arguably a better all-around hitter. Walker struck out in 22% of plate appearances this season, and while that rate will probably spike when he first enters the big leagues, its highly unlikely to approach Davis’s major league leading 33%. Walker also posted a 9.3% walk rate, lower than Davis’s 11% from this season. But Davis is a five year veteran, and in four full (min. 300 plate appearances) minor league seasons he never worked a free pass as often as Walker did.
That’s all well and a good, and its a testament to Walker’s long term ability at first base. It’s why MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo and Jim Calls have him ranked as Baltimore’s 4th best prospect. Yet Mayo and Callis listed his “ETA,” estimated time of big league arrival, as 2015. He has a few deficiencies he has to work out before he can succeed at the game’s highest level.
And one of them is the most basic: can he handle big league pitching? Walker hit a robust .301/.367/.516 in 95 games with Bowie. However, once promoted to Triple-A, he fell off across the board, to .259/.335/.428. Some post-promotion regression is to be expected, which is why evaluators often look at how a prospect adjusts to a level over time. Walker only got 41 games, not a terribly large sample size, but he showed no sustained improvement at any point. In fact, in his final 20 games, the former South Carolina standout hit just .205 with a .586 OPS, and 27 strikeouts (32.5%, eerily reminiscent of Davis’s, only without the freakish power).
More pressing than Walker’s bat, though, is his glove. The prospect is certainly a capable first baseman, except Chris Davis hasn’t been playing first base. Since third Baseman Manny Machado went down for the year with right knee surgery, Davis has been featured has been featured primarily at the hot corner. He hasn’t looked graceful there. He hasn’t even looked mediocre, not by any measure, old school or new. He has an .886 fielding percentage at the position, Fangraphs’s UZR has projected him to cost the Orioles 12.2 runs there over the course of a season, and the eye test gives a chilling prognosis.
Walker would have to be only barely competent to replicate Davis’s production in the field, but it’s not clear he can be. In their evaluation, MLB.com wrote that “he has the tools to be a very solid defender” at first, but was quite clear that Walker is “is strictly a first baseman.” Walker has played in 252 minor league contests. He has appeared at third only once, for two innings at the end of an August 30th game against the Durham Bulls. He did not have a ball hit to him.
Davis was still playing first base part-time, though, and if the Orioles trust his bat, then they could give him ten to fifteen games there down the stretch. Steven Pearce and Nelson Cruz would then switch off between DH and the corner to keep their long balls in the lineup. Alejandro De Aza and Delmon Young, both of whom have been swinging a hot bat, would see a reduction in playing time, so Baltimore would have to be sure Walker would out-produce them. That would still leave Jimmy Paredes and Kelley Johnson at third, a hole in what’s been an otherwise stalwart lineup, but no All-Star first baseman are leaping to offer Baltimore their services.
Although Walker is not on the 40-man roster, there is some evidence Baltimore would consider promoting him. The Orioles called up only five players when rosters expanded on September 1, but they also left a squad of near MLB-ready players at their Spring Training complex in Sarasota, Florida. If an injury or some other calamity befell the major league team, Baltimore could turn to that squad for reinforcements. Among the players sent to Sarasota: 23 year old first baseman Christian Walker.