In an attempt to add more left-handed relief to the roster, the Orioles acquired 29-year-old southpaw Richard Bleier from the New York Yankees on Tuesday for a player to be named later or future cash considerations.
Bleier, who posted a 1.96 ERA in 23 appearances for the Yankees last year, was designated for assignment Thursday when the Yankees signed first baseman/designated hitter Chris Carter.
A former sixth-round pick of the Texas Rangers in 2008, Bleier wasn’t scored upon in his last 13 appearances for the Yankees in the second half of 2016 and, for the year, lefties hit just .150 against him (6-for-40) with an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of just .409 in 43 plate appearances.
The move makes plenty of sense for the Orioles on the surface, but it also comes with a side order of surprise. Because to make room for Bleier on the 40-man, the Orioles designated first baseman/outfielder Christian Walker for assignment.
The former fourth-round pick and former University of South Carolina star was, at one point, thought to be the Orioles’ first baseman of the future. But Walker was passed on the depth chart by Trey Mancini, and then the Orioles re-signed Chris Davis before the 2016 season.
With his path at first blocked, Walker, 25, switched to left field last season at Triple-A Norfolk, did an adequate job defensively and hit fairly well, batting .264 with 18 homers and 29 doubles while playing half his games in a pitchers’ park.
Walker, however, never received a call-up in 2016, and when the club re-signed outfielder/DH Mark Trumbo in January, Walker’s chances of getting a shot with the Orioles diminished greatly.
Before Tuesday, the Orioles had nine outfielders on their 40-man roster, and that didn’t include Michael Bourn, Craig Gentry or three other non-invitees in spring camp.
Not a traditional outfielder, Walker became the odd man out. The Orioles now have 10 days to trade, release or ask waivers on Walker. If he clears waivers, the club can send him back to Triple-A Norfolk.
My guess is the Orioles will try hard to find a taker for Walker, because it would be surprising if he didn’t get claimed on waivers.
You never know in these situations, but Walker is still young, has a right-handed-power bat and has made himself into a pretty solid defender at first base from what scouts and other observers have told me. Add in some defensive versatility in left – at least in a pinch — and you’d think some struggling team would take a flier on Walker.
Here’s one thought: Walker is from Suburban Philadelphia, and there are a whole lot of Orioles connections in the Phillies’ front office (though most were out of Baltimore before Walker was drafted).
If Walker’s days in Baltimore are over, some Orioles fans won’t be happy – simply based on the hype that was once associated with him. Walker reached as high as No. 3 on Baseball America’s Orioles’ prospect list in 2015, a few months after he homered against the Boston Red Sox in just his third start in the majors in September 2014 (his post-game pie celebration is pictured above). That same month Walker was named the organization’s Brooks Robinson Player of the Year, given annually to the minor-league position player that had the best season.
But Walker had just four hits in 31 plate appearances with the Orioles in 2014 and 2015, and the re-signing of Davis and Trumbo buried him further – ultimately leading to today’s news.
As for Bleier, he’s definitely another solid option to be a lefty specialist in 2017, a spot currently held by second-year reliever Donnie Hart.
If Bleier doesn’t make the team out of spring training, he has minor league options remaining, so he is a fallback if Hart suffers a sophomore slump during the year.
It’s hard to argue with the Orioles’ decision to grab another lefty reliever that’s had some success in the big leagues. This week, they’ve added Vidal Nuno and Bleier to shore up a weakness.
And who knows if Walker is ever going to be more than a 4A player?
Acquiring Bleier is another low-risk, sensible move by the Orioles.
But if Walker turns into a legitimate major leaguer, the decision to essentially swap one for the other understandably will be scrutinized.