The day is Apr. 5, 2013. It’s Opening Day at Camden Yards and Chris Davis just launched a grand slam into the left field seats to put the Orioles up 9-5 in the eighth inning. It marks his fourth home run in as many games to start the season but he is only getting started. Davis went on to finish that season with a franchise record 53 homers to accompany a solid .286 batting average and 138 RBI’s.
Fast forward five years and Davis is on pace for another 200+ strikeout season while hitting a measly .152 in the second month of the season. The O’s first baseman has reached a point where he would contribute more by riding the bench and it’s justifiably left the fan base very angry. Unfortunately, this terrible stretch is far from an anomaly for Davis, who has now hit below .250 in three of the last four seasons.
Plenty of players at the MLB level will put up similar numbers but only one has received a seven-year contract worth $161 million and that’s exactly where the problem comes in. Davis pulled one of the biggest con jobs in baseball history by turning two standout seasons into the most lucrative contract to ever come out of the front office in Baltimore.
Now let’s make no mistake, 2013 was a special year for Davis and his numbers don’t lie, but it’s the only year of his career where he produced something worthy of $23 million. Sure, 2012 and 2015 were quality years for Davis as well but far from enough to justify the deal he received. Despite this, you cannot deny Davis was an integral part of the Orioles’ successes between 2012 and 2015, which made him favorable in a town that had been starved of baseball glory for over a decade.
I would argue that the warning signs of Davis’ downfall were present between 2012 and 2015, particularly in 2014 when Davis slumped for most of the season before making an early exit due to suspension. This forced him to take nearly 150 less plate appearances than the year before but it didn’t stop him from striking out 173 times.
Yes, that is a lot of strikeouts. In fact, it now sits as the sixth highest single season strikeout total in franchise history. Now I know what you’re thinking. That’s ridiculous. Well, it gets even worse when you realize that all six of Davis’ seasons in Baltimore can be found on this list.
We tend to focus on the strikeouts a lot when it comes to Davis but 2014 was bad for him in almost every offensive capacity. His .196/.300/.404 line was one of the worst in his career, dating back to his time with the Texas Rangers where he never started a full season.
When the O’s ended up making the ALCS that year, many looked past or simply forget Davis’ concerning numbers at the plate. By the time he fixed them the following year, it was too late. The fan base was craving more playoff baseball after falling short of a World Series appearance the previous year and Davis’ bat was surely the answer to get them back, right? When the final weekend of the 2015 season rolled around, Davis received a standing ovation and pleas to stay in Baltimore from the home crowd at Camden Yards. Everyone was so convinced that Davis would be gone in a matter of weeks.
As luck would have it, weeks turned into months and Davis still had not reached a deal with another team. How could this be? These teams all saw what the Orioles didn’t, and that was a flawed, one-dimensional player asking for way too much money. After realizing they could make Davis an offer and he would actually listen, the Orioles got baited into paying him an insane sum of money to be their franchise first baseman until he turns 36 in the year 2022.
Not only was Davis a flash in the pan on offense, his defense has also taken a hit since signing the mega deal. Fans loved to praise the first baseman’s defensive skills but was he really that good? Davis has never won a Gold Glove, but you might be surprised to know he has some Gold Glove-worthy numbers under his belt. Davis posted a higher ultimate zone rating (UZR) than American League winner Eric Hosmer in both 2014 and 2015. The UZR metric is used to measure a player’s defensive ability by factoring in the aspects of defense that don’t show up in stat sheets like range and arm strength as well as the differences between different ball parks.
While he was not better than 2016 winner Mitch Moreland, Davis was still considered an above average defender based on UZR. It was around this time that fans were able to dismiss some of Davis’ troubles at the plate because they were not quite the norm yet and he was still a plus defender. However, the defensive numbers have taken a troubling dive in the past year and at this point we can’t even point to Davis’ defense as an excuse for him being in the lineup. His -2.4 UZR since the beginning of 2017 is the second-worst among qualified first baseman in the American league.
What makes Davis’ contract the worst in franchise history extends beyond his own numbers. The time period in which it happened is what truly makes the deal so puzzling and indefensible in hindsight. Obviously, no one would agree to this contract knowing what we do now but there’s really no sensible reason for the O’s to have fallen into this trap.
The Orioles are currently on the verge of a harsh reality. They have been avoiding this moment for a while but there is no way around it at this point. The core of this team is about to take a big hit and there isn’t anything in the farm system to compensate for that. It’s hard to say just how long the O’s can expect to be bottom feeders in the American league but we all remember the 14-year playoff drought that ran through the 2000’s. Those 65-to-75 win seasons are back and might be here to stay for the next few years.
I’m by no means blaming the Orioles’ current situation on Davis’ contract. The inability to develop pitching talent in-house and trading your farm system away for rentals at the deadline are contributors to the state of the Orioles in 2018, but Davis’ contract is certainly a big factor as well and here’s why.
Let’s start with the money. In the upcoming offseason the Orioles are set to lose their best player, Manny Machado. This has been a long time coming and now that the O’s know they have no chance of signing Machado, the only option is to trade him. Whether that actually happens or not doesn’t matter because we already know Machado will not be in an O’s uniform come 2019. In today’s market, $161 million is only a fraction of what Machado will command, but the O’s would certainly like to at least have that on hand to make him an offer because let’s be honest, Davis’ has not touched Machado in terms of value even when he is at the top of his game.
We knew Machado would be the better player in 2013 and we certainly know that now, but in case you need some numbers consider that Machado has had a higher WAR and WAA than Davis every year since 2013. Yes, that includes Davis’ two monster years where he hit 53 and 47 homers respectively.
Okay, maybe you’re not a fan of rolling out a huge deal for Machado either. That’s understandable. Especially considering there are more needs for this O’s team right now. That $161 million could have come in handy over the past few years when the Orioles were trying to entice free agent starters. Or maybe it could be divided into a couple of extensions for the young talent, like Jonathan Schoop, Trey Mancini and Dylan Bundy. Instead, you have an Orioles team with no financial leverage and $92 million still committed to a first baseman who has more strikeouts than hits and walks combined since signing his contract.
Besides the easy financial complaints we can look at the Orioles prospect options coming out of 2015. The previously mentioned Mancini made his MLB debut toward the end of the 2016 season, which didn’t come out of nowhere. He would follow that up with a full season in 2017 and even finished third in the Rookie of the Year vote behind New York’s Aaron Judge and Boston’s Andrew Benintendi. Why on earth would the O’s commit seven years to a first baseman when you knew you had a prospect like Mancini ready to make his debut within the next year? Even if Mancini didn’t make it to the majors until the midway point or the end of 2017, you would be able to temporarily fill that hole at first for a much cheaper price than Davis.
In addition to that, everyone in the organization should have seen that Mancini was a more balanced hitter with the ability to hit for both contact and power while Davis is an aging free swinger with a home run-or-bust mentality. Now you have created a scenario where your first baseman of the future is getting a majority of his playing time outside his natural position.
I fear the negative effects of this signing have a chance to linger long into the future, which is why it should be considered the worst in franchise history. It’s not just Davis turning in bad numbers. It’s the fact that he is now stuck at the Major League level because of the financial commitment you made to him and he is bringing down the players around him.
So what other contracts can compete with this? Up until recently, Albert Belle was considered the worst signing in franchise history. After agreeing to a five year deal worth $65 million, Belle only played two years for the Orioles before being forced to retire because of the osteoarthritis in his hip. The loss was extremely disappointing due to how unforeseen it was but Belle had not shown any signs of dropping off and rarely missed time with injuries. In fact when Cal Ripken ended his consecutive game streak in 1998, Belle became the holder of the longest active streak.
Even though he was injured for three of those five years, Belle was worth his contract in the brief time he spent in Baltimore. The veteran slugger averaged 30 home runs and just 75 strikeouts in 1999 and 2000 while hitting .289. He would also extend his streak of 100 RBI seasons to nine by picking up 117 in 1999 and 103 in his final season.
Over the final three years of Belle’s contract he did not play for the Orioles but still took up a spot on the 40-man roster. This is the only aspect of the contract that made the team look especially foolish, but that changed when the O’s were reimbursed $27.1 million of the $39 million they paid Belle between 2001 and 2003 due to an insurance settlement.
Belle gets a lot of flack for being a clubhouse cancer and not playing a majority of the most expensive baseball contract of the late 90’s. However, Davis has already surpassed Belle in terms of being a bust with just under five full seasons left on his deal.
There isn’t really good answer as to what to do with him. No matter what it’s a waste of money but you have to decide if you’re willing to put a $161 million man in the minor leagues. Many would say yes but at the very least you have to try to give him less at bats if he is staying at the major league level. That means moving him down to the bottom of the order, where he belongs, or benching him for extended periods.
The Davis issue has been on everyone’s mind this week as Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer made some interesting remarks on the first baseman and his effort. “You’ve got to make some adjustments,” Palmer said. “I don’t see anything. I don’t see a wider stance. I don’t see him dropping his hands. I don’t see anything.”
The comments seemed normal enough until Palmer dropped a bit of a bomb on listeners.
“He told everybody in spring training that he worked with Scott Coolbaugh,” Palmer said. “So, I asked Scott, ‘Hey, you must have really put in a lot of work.’ He goes, ‘We didn’t work.’ So, I don’t believe anything.”
The legitimacy of Palmer’s comments have been debated with Coolbaugh and Davis defending their work. Assuming these claims are true, the Orioles have an even bigger problem on their hands than an overpaid player. They have an overpaid player unwilling to make adjustments like any other struggling player would. It makes you wonder if benching Davis even sends a message. Buck Showalter seems to think so but continues to place Davis in the middle of the lineup almost every day.
Unfortunately, the only thing we can do now is watch the madness of this contract continue to unfold. It probably won’t be pretty and I’d be willing to put money on the entire situation getting worse before it possibly gets better. All the evidence is right in front of us and it’s not even debatable anymore. Chris Davis’ seven year, $161 million contract is the worst in the history of the Baltimore Orioles. By the time it’s all said and done, it could be among the worst in Major League history.
Image credit: Nick Wass / AP