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What does Chris Davis’s return mean for the 2020 Orioles?

The Orioles reactivated Chris Davis on Tuesday. How often will he see the field and in what role?

Baltimore Orioles v Washington Nationals Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

The Orioles had just won three consecutive games against the Yankees. Newcomer Dean Kremer dazzled in his debut, and rookies Keegan Akin and Ryan Mountcastle both impressed in their first collection of opportunities. Suddenly, the Birds were within two games of a playoff spot. Then it happened.

Baltimore announced they were activating Chris Davis prior to yesterday’s game against the Mets. Davis, who had not appeared in a game since August 19, was back in town.

This elicited the usual moans and groans that have followed Davis for the past few years. The once proud slugger and his albatross of a contract aligned too closely with the Orioles’ collapse in the second half of the decade.

In a new and admittedly abnormal season, Davis’s disappointment shifted from a focal point to a footnote on the rebuilding club. The emergence of several young Orioles shaded talk away from the 34-year-old, and onto a bright future. Three straight over the Yanks began to steer the conversation back toward the postseason.

Regardless of whether Davis’s fall from grace has become a foregone conclusion, the Orioles have yet to officially move on from the first baseman. Until that happens, if he’s healthy, he needs to be on the active roster.

Davis started at first and batted fifth for the Orioles on Opening Day. At the time, Mountcastle was not on the roster. With Trey Mancini sidelined for the season, and Renato Núñez serving as the designated hitter, Davis’s presence in the lineup made sense. After all, expectations were low for a club coming off of consecutive 100-loss seasons.

Flash forward to today, and it’s extremely difficult to justify Davis starting another game this year. Davis recorded only six hits in 49 at bats while compiling a .122/.173/.184 slash line. His strong start in Spring Training now feels nearly as removed as his league-leading 47 home runs in 2015.

Núñez leads the Orioles with 24 starts at first base. While he has not impressed at the position, he’s played well enough to keep his streaky bat in the lineup. Núñez slashed .260/.319/.521 through the first 37 games and has consistently hit in the heart of the order.

He may not be a franchise first baseman, but Núñez fits the mold of players Baltimore is trying to evaluate and develop. His bat needs to be in the lineup, and his glove is serviceable enough to free up the DH spot from time to time. The increase of production from Baltimore’s catchers, paired with José Iglesias’s quad injury, have made roster flexibility a necessity.

Ryan Mountcastle’s arrival injected a bit of life into the team. Baltimore promoted the heralded prospect the same day they sent Davis to the injured list, and all the youngster has done is hit. Mountcastle is slashing .339/.397/.607 after another impressive performance last night.

Mountcastle has played exclusively in left since getting to Baltimore. However, O’s manager Brandon Hyde said the 23-year-old would spend some time at first this season. Mountcastle has conducted himself well in left, and his hot bat may deter Hyde from messing with him, but that may need to change soon.

Even with the injury to Anthony Santander, the Orioles may look to free up an outfield spot if Cedric Mullins and DJ Stewart continue their comeback tours. Austin Hays will need at bats once he returns from a fractured rib in the coming weeks.

Even if the Orioles still have several years left in their rebuild, a part of the plan involves playing winning baseball. The O’s are playing with house money, and this bonus season has provided the club a free lesson on what meaningful games in September feel like. For nearly every player on the roster, this is the only “pennant race” they’ve ever known.

The Orioles cannot afford to take one single at bat away from this young group. The experience, talent evaluation, and yes, the playoff hunt, are all too valuable to sacrifice.

Hyde told the media yesterday that he would make the lineup that gives the Orioles the best chance to win. “If CD is part of the lineup that day, then he is, and if not, he’s going to be ready to pinch-hit and defend late.”

It’s difficult to imagine a scenario where four Davis at bats giving any club the best chance to be successful. However, the ability to use Davis as a defensive replacement could come in handy. If he stays true to form, he’ll likely serve as an upgrade over Núñez, Pat Valaika or even Bryan Holaday. Again, Hyde will do whatever provides the O’s the best chance to win.

Hyde said he would find ways to “possibly play” Davis. A pinch hit opportunity or two can be tolerated, and even a spot start during a double header would make sense. Still, it’s encouraging that Hyde stopped short of making any guarantees.

Every Baltimore fan knows how it feels to have a would-be rally crushed simply by Davis stepping into the batter’s box. There’s no doubt that Hyde recognizes the weight that Davis’s presence brings from time to time. The skipper may not have the ability to remove Davis from the roster, but he can certainly limit his at bats.

The Orioles were never going to activate Davis and publicly state they would not play him. Hyde’s comments appear to be a step in the right direction though. Baltimore can still be in talent evaluation mode while trying to win baseball games. Unfortunately for Davis, his presence in the lineup does not fit with either of the two.