The Orioles potentially addressed the most apparent remaining offensive need on Tuesday, acquiring left-handed first baseman Ryan O’Hearn in a trade for cash with the Kansas City Royals.
O’Hearn, 29, appeared in 342 games with Kansas City over the past fives seasons, playing first and both corner outfield spots. But after slugging .597 in 44 games in 2018, he has largely struggled, posting an OPS+ of 73 or lower — meaning he was at least 27% below league average — each of the past four seasons. Last week, the Royals designated him for assignment to create space for starting pitcher Jordan Lyles, who signed a two-year deal with Kansas City after the Orioles declined his $11 million option for 2023.
The Orioles have been seeking a left-handed complement at first base for Ryan Mountcastle, who before the trade was the only member of Baltimore’s 40-man roster with at least 10 games of major league experience at the position. A report from the New York Post last week suggested the Orioles had interest in veteran first baseman Eric Hosmer after the Boston Red Sox released him.
Last season, Mountcastle was the Orioles’ starting first baseman in 123 of their 162 games, with all the players in the lineup for the others no longer in the organization. In recent weeks, Baltimore has designated for assignment two natural first basemen in Lewin Díaz and Tyler Nevin, trading them for cash to Atlanta and Detroit, respectively.
“He’s not going to play 162 games, nor will he play 162 out in the field,” executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said of Mountcastle in early December. “We’re kind of looking for some left-handed depth bats, guys that can be able to come into camp and have a shot to come in and compete and break or provide depth during the season, provide us some flexibility if there’s injuries. And generally, as we look at some of these corner, first base left-handed bat options, we’re looking for left-handed hitters because of Ryan.”
Before the Royals cut him loose, O’Hearn signed a $1.4 million deal to avoid arbitration. Based on arbitration projections, O’Hearn would be one of 11 Orioles with a contract worth at least $1 million should he make their opening day roster. Baltimore had no more than seven such players to start the 2019 to 2022 seasons, per Cot’s Baseball Contracts.
But given O’Hearn’s offensive troubles, it’s far from assured he breaks camp with Baltimore, even if the organization’s other candidates to play behind Mountcastle have mostly had their experience at first come in pregame drills or the minors rather than big league games. O’Hearn still has a minor league option, meaning the organization doesn’t have to expose him to waivers if it wants to send him to the minors.
Backup catcher James McCann’s nine major league games at first base, all for the New York Mets over the previous two seasons, make him the most experienced first baseman on the Orioles’ 40-man roster behind Mountcastle and O’Hearn. McCann said in a video call Tuesday that his initial conversations with the club after last month’s trade from New York included talk of both he and starting catcher Adley Rutschman possibly spending time at first.
Rutschman played the position with some regularity in college and the minors to keep his premier bat in the lineup on days he didn’t catch, but the Orioles avoided using him there once he reached the majors, instead putting him at designated hitter. Elias said early last month that any possibility of Rutschman playing first in 2023 would depend on the composition of the rest of the roster.
Other members Orioles’ 40-man roster who have played first base in the minors are infielder Ramón Urías, outfielder Anthony Santander and top prospect Gunnar Henderson. The last of Urías’ 11 games there came in 2018. All nine of Santander’s appearances were in 2016.
Up until two weeks before his Aug. 31 major league debut, Henderson had made all of his 213 professional starts in the field at either shortstop or third base. But in an effort to increase his versatility ahead of a promotion, nine of Henderson’s final 11 starts with Triple-A Norfolk came at either first or second. He played second base three times in his first six major league games but stuck to the left side of the infield and designated hitter in his final 28 appearances. Last month, manager Brandon Hyde described playing Henderson at second as “unfair to him,” so it seems likely he’ll exclusively play shortstop or third in 2023.
Santander, Rutschman and infielder Terrin Vavra participated in pregame infield work at first base throughout last season, but none appeared in a game there with the Orioles. All three are capable of hitting left-handed, with Santander and Rutschman both being switch-hitters, while McCann is a right-handed hitter.
The Orioles’ offseason acquisitions have also included two minor league signees who are left-handed hitters with experience at first base. The Red Sox gave Franchy Cordero, a natural outfielder, 55 starts at first base over the past two seasons, though he did not perform well there; his minus-7 outs above average in 2022 ranked 31st of 36 qualified first baseman, according to Baseball Savant, with none of the others performing below their estimated success rates by more. Josh Lester’s only major league appearance in the field was an inning at third base last year for the Detroit Tigers, but he’s made at least 10 minor league starts at first every season since 2017, including playing 104 games there for Detroit’s Triple-A affiliate in 2022.
Even with O’Hearn, the Orioles could continue to explore upgrades. Hosmer remains available, though he’s been linked more strongly to the Chicago Cubs of late, possibly quieting any fears of an Orioles fan base that will always tie Hosmer to the 2014 Kansas City Royals team that kept Baltimore from reaching the World Series. Other left-handed-hitting first basemen still available as free agents include Edwin Ríos, Colin Moran, Brandon Belt and Ben Gamel, all of whom were worth more wins above replacement than O’Hearn in 2022, according to FanGraphs.
To create space for O’Hearn on their 40-man roster, the Orioles designated minor league right-hander Chris Vallimont for assignment. The 25-year-old right-hander had a 5.19 ERA over 29 appearances, 24 of them starts, between Double-A and Triple-A after being claimed during last season from the Minnesota Twins. Baseball America had Vallimont as Baltimore’s No. 27 prospect in August’s midseason rankings.