Periodically, Camden Chat checks in on new additions to the Orioles 40-man roster. A few weeks late getting to this one. Sorry!
How he got here: Contract selected 6/3/23 (minor league free agent signing 12/22)
Who left: Dillon Tate transferred to 60-day injured list 6/3/23
In the recent tanking era of the Orioles, players like Josh Lester were never too far away. At a time when the O’s lacked high minors talent at a number of positions, the kind of player they turned to were ones who were a little older, not really prospects any more, who would probably be placeholders. They arrived, beat writers penned stories about their perseverance, the souvenir baseballs were collected for first hits or first strikeouts, and before long it became clear why only a bad team gave this guy a chance.
Lester is definitely one of those guys who stuck with his baseball career. He was originally a 13th round pick by the Tigers in the 2015 draft. A college draftee still waiting for his chance seven years later has waited a long time. Even the 66-96 Tigers did not opt to have Lester around for any longer than two games, and he never got a hit over that cup of coffee.
There was never any top prospect list with Lester’s name on it, because even when he hit 32 home runs in the minors in 2021, he hit 25 of those as a 26-year-old in Double-A. Success in Double-A at age 26 does not mean a whole lot for one’s potential big league performance. This lesson was taught in Birdland to anyone who got excited about Luis Montañez winning the Eastern League Triple Crown in 2008. He could not hit, no matter how much a meme from the ancient days of Camden Chat comments claimed otherwise.
We are not in that same era of baseball any more, so the circumstances that lead to people like Lester getting playing time are not the same. Lester, after signing a minor league deal in the offseason, had to wait to see similar lefty-batting, theoretically power-hitting corner infielder Ryan O’Hearn get a chance first and secure some playing time for himself.
Even so, Lester managed to push himself into the big league picture because he was really raking for Triple-A Norfolk, batting .282/.339/.549 in 52 games there, with 14 home runs. That’s power to notice, even if it’s not coming from one of the prospects who was exciting fans before the season.
The Orioles had an opportunity to give him a chance for a limited bench role and that’s what they did. He appeared for the team before a prospect like Jordan Westburg precisely because it was a roster spot they had tapped for a limited bench role. We still got the “He finally got a big league hit!” stories after all. The 28-year-old Lester was hitless in the five at-bats he got with Detroit last year. His first hit this year, in his Orioles debut in San Francisco on June 4, was his first major league hit. He got drove in two runs that day.
It’s not hard to be happy for players like that. It’s also not hard to be happy that the Orioles are not making a dozen of these stories happen every year any more. If your favorite baseball team is fulfilling those dreams in significant numbers, it’s probably not a good sign for their record.
Lester was not long for the roster even after the illness suffered by Ryan Mountcastle that led to Mountcastle landing on the injured list due to vertigo. Third base is plenty covered with better defenders. Gold Glover Ramón Urías, Gunnar Henderson, and now even Jordan Westburg are in that mix. It’s not like when we had Rio Ruiz or Kelvin Gutiérrez over there. First base is now going to O’Hearn and sometimes Anthony Santander and Urías. When Mountcastle is healthy and hitting baseballs again (his detractors will say if not when), he’ll be in that mix too.
The Orioles only had Lester in the starting lineup three times, with 23 plate appearances across 11 games total, before optioning Lester back to Norfolk on Saturday at the same time that Cedric Mullins was activated from the injured list. I don’t think he’ll make as quick of a return as O’Hearn did, even if someone else gets hurt. He’ll always have those four hits and four runs driven in, and in the unlikely event that things go better for the team this year than they’ve ever gone before in my life, he’ll have earned the ring the Orioles send him.
Still to come: Jordan Westburg