Going into the offseason, Chris Davis hoped next year would bring another opportunity to be the Orioles' everyday first baseman — along with a chance at redemption.
Despite having his best season at the plate — Davis set career highs in homers (33) and RBIs (85) — some early-season struggles at first led to his move from the position in late May. The Orioles used him as their designated hitter, and experiments in right field and left field worked well.
But earlier this month, just after the Orioles non-tendered first baseman Mark Reynolds, Davis received a phone call from Orioles manager Buck Showalter. The message: Get your first baseman's mitt ready for 2013.
Barring an offeseason move that would dictate otherwise — the Orioles are still shopping for a power bat through the trade market — Showalter made it clear that the 26-year-old Davis will have the opportunity to be the team's everyday first baseman.
"He said, 'We know you can play outfield if you have to, we know you can DH, but we want you to focus on first," Davis said this week. "And for Buck to give me that call that I was going to be the everyday first baseman, it was huge. It gives me a little bit of time to plan and kind of prepare myself to go out there and play 162 games at first."
This past season, Reynolds' glovework at first — along with the addition of rookie Manny Machado at third and Nate McLouth's late-season work in the outfield — stabilized the Orioles defense down the stretch as the team made the postseason for the first time in 15 years.
Reynolds agreed to a one-year, $6 million deal with the Cleveland Indians last week, one he accepted without ever receiving an offer from the Orioles. Despite his problems at first last season, Davis is the most logical fit to take over the position, especially with the outfield filling up now that the team has re-signed McLouth and has both Nick Markakis and Nolan Reimold returning from injuries.
Davis had a breakthrough season at the plate in 2012, proving his ability to be a full-time player. The left-handed slugger led the team in homers and improved his average against left-handed pitching, and he showed his versatility in the outfield, playing well in left and right despite his size. Plus, his two scoreless innings on the mound in the Orioles' 17-inning win in Boston on May 6 will forever live in team lore.
But first base is likely where the 26-year-old Davis' long-term future lies, and Showalter will let him prove it.
"I just wanted him to know that he was going to get a look over there and get an opportunity and to just be ready," Showalter said of his call to Davis. "I think Chris realizes that the major leagues is a little different than prospect status somewhere. This guy came to us with a reputation of being a really good first baseman, and for whatever reason he really didn't get his feet on the ground over there."
Davis entered last season with a career .997 fielding percentage at first, but he committed four errors in 38 games — and a few other miscues weren't charged as errors — before Showalter moved him in favor of Reynolds. Many of Davis' miscues were routine plays, like dropping throws to first.
"I missed some plays that I probably shouldn't have," said Davis, who didn't play first base once after May 28. "It was one of those things where I really couldn't find a rhythm and then with the injuries, I kind of had to fill in other places. I think there a few plays where there were some mental lapses, lack of focus. Maybe I took my eye off the ball a little too soon and was a little lazy."
Said Showalter: "When you're in an organization like he was in Texas, where everybody knows how good he was at first base and everything, I think he came in here trying to show everybody and sometimes maybe he made it a little harder than it had to be and it kind of snowballed on him.
"I remember him saying to me, I can't believe some of the [mistakes]. I've never done this."
Davis had been a prospect who had yet to stick in the majors for a full season when the Orioles acquired him, along with right-hander Tommy Hunter, from the Rangers in the Koji Uehara trade before the 2011 deadline. He made 17 of his 31 starts for the Orioles that season at third base, and he likely would have played there more if not for a nagging throwing shoulder. But he went into last year's spring training as the starting first baseman.
"Mark came back and played first, and when my arm was healthy I played a lot of third base," Davis said. "I really didn't have a lot of time to get to know the infielders. We had a lot of guys moving around. There were a lot of different things, so I think the more work I put in at spring training with the guys and the more I get accustomed to them and the more I learn the infielders, the best off I'll be."
Showalter, who had partial knee replacement surgery this offseason, told Davis one of the reasons he had the procedure was to be able to work with Davis at first. Showalter will defer to new infield coach Bobby Dickerson, but the manager said "there are a couple things I'd like to do with him physically that I wasn't able to do."
Ultimately, he's confident Davis can do the job at first.
"I just wanted him to know that things change," Showalter said. "And I've had some really good quality people tell me he was a really good first baseman and it just never happened. I think more than anything, he needs to earn the trust of [infielders] like [shortstop] J.J. Hardy."
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