The organization that gave us the strange experiment of Steve Pearce at second base is going to be working on a new mad science project: Christian Walker in left field. Walker was optioned to Triple-A Norfolk by the Orioles on Saturday afternoon with the intent of making him an outfielder with the Tides this season.
In the press release announcing the move, the Orioles even optimistically labeled Walker's position as "INF/OF" despite the fact that Walker has never played even a single professional regular season inning in the outfield. Other than one third of an inning at third base, he's never played anywhere other than first base.
The Orioles have basically hit Walker with the reverse of the memorable Moneyball scene ("It's not that hard. Tell him, Wash." / "It's incredibly hard.") Instead of having to convince him to switch to first base, it's about a move to the outfield. One imagines Buck Showalter and first base/outfield coach Wayne Kirby re-enacting the same conversation with Walker.
Not that it was likely a hard sell to get Walker, who turns 25 tomorrow, to make the switch. First base, as everyone has surely noticed, is set up for a while in Baltimore, what with Chris Davis signing a seven year contract and all. To get to the big leagues in the near future, a first baseman in the O's minors will have to either hit his way into a bench/DH spot or play a different position.
Left field is not so settled for the O's. Their left fielders last season were 13th in the AL in OPS, batting a disgusting .210/.287/.353 combined. Spring training has not yet revealed an answer at that position for the O's, either, as international free agent signing Hyun Soo Kim has struggled so much in his spring action that the baseball media is writing articles about whether the O's will try to get out of Kim's contract.
There is Rule 5 pick Joey Rickard as a possibility, as he has impressed the O's with his own spring performance - batting .392/.475/.569 in the spring, stealing five bases and showing good defense. But, there's a reason why he was a Rule 5 pick, and those are only spring numbers. According to Baseball Reference, Rickard has faced, on average, pitchers between Double-A and Triple-A caliber. That ain't the big leagues.
In short, there may be a need again this year. It could be that neither Kim nor Rickard prove to be every day options. It's a pair of big ifs to assume that Walker will both take to left field with enough proficiency that the O's can consider him, and that Walker will hit well enough to force his way into the conversation. His minor league batting line from 2015, .257/.324/.423, looks nice but isn't overwhelming.
If Walker does well enough with left field, another possibility presents itself. Fellow Camden Chatter Tyler Young wrote last week about Walker and Trey Mancini, wondering whether they are more future Orioles or future trade bait. Walker with left field versatility is a more valuable trade piece.
He's not going to fetch them Mike Trout, of course, but Walker's name may prolong a trade discussion as the O's try to bolster their big league roster at some point in the near future.
By shifting Walker into the outfield, the O's also avoid a "Who plays first?" logjam. Mancini has forced his way up to the next level after blasting Double-A for a .359/.395/.586 batting line last year. Now they don't have two first basemen tabbed for Norfolk. They have Mancini playing first and Walker set for left field.
Do you think this means Mancini has passed Walker in the eyes of the organization? One way to look at it could be that the O's are trying to increase the versatility of the player they regard as being more likely to help in the near future. On the other hand, it could be the opposite, that it wouldn't be Walker the O's were moving if they already felt good about him as a first baseman or even as a big league-caliber hitter.
Will it work? Who knows? There's little risk to the O's in trying, and if it works out, it could be one more of those outside-the-box moves that have helped the O's in recent years.