Long before Chris Davis moved on from baseball with his surprise retirement announcement Thursday morning, the Orioles had done well to move on from him. The self-described “lump” the club couldn’t get rid of was one they’d at least learned to work around.
But even if he knew long before communicating to the team that he wanted to retire, the deed being done must be such a relief to both sides. Even if there aren’t any major short-term consequences for him or the club, it was a move all sides will welcome, just for the finality of it all.
The Orioles, for their part, seemed to be living in a post-Davis world for years, even though he was still on the team. During his record hitless streak that began in 2018 and ran into the 2019 season, when this rebuild actually began, Davis seemed to relish the support he got from a new set of teammates.
They seemed to like him, and he them. Many have wished him well on social media since his announcement Thursday, and likely remember the small moments that made him more than just their struggling teammate.
When T-shirts featuring popular infielder Stevie Wilkerson pitching were made and sold at the team store but weren’t given to players, Davis instead sent someone up to the Warehouse at Camden Yards to buy them for whoever wanted one.
But that new group of teammates turned out to be a transient one, mostly by design, as the new front office under executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias devoted most of its time and resources toward scouting, analytics and player development infrastructure and simply tried to get by at the major league level.
Elias was steadfast in that they’d do what they could to help Davis get back on track and would honor his contract, though there wasn’t really any choice. And even before Davis got into his dugout dustup with manager Brandon Hyde that summer, he seemed to be kept at arm’s length by the new leaders of the organization.
He was their problem solely by still being there, but keeping him at a distance meant they weren’t taking responsibility for any potential turnaround.
The Orioles will benefit for the reported agreement for his 2022 salary to be spread out over three seasons, but it won’t do much to change the team’s short-term prospects. If anything, it gives them the financial space to prevent the most galling of all offseason prospects: moving on from any of John Means, Trey Mancini, Tanner Scott or Paul Fry.
Arbitration raises for those players, plus Anthony Santander, Pedro Severino and Jorge López, could end up cutting into whatever amount the Orioles would have paid Davis but otherwise have deferred.
It still doesn’t mean there will be rampant reinvestment in the major league roster, at least not yet. Even with Davis getting around $7 million of what he was owed in 2022 through the reported arrangement, the team gave out deferred money on nearly every free-agent contract it signed in recent years. Even if the money deferred to the likes of Alex Cobb, Darren O’Day and Andrew Cashner went out with them in trades, the Orioles could still be paying more to players not on the roster than anyone who is next season.
That Davis won’t be, and can focus his rehab from his May hip surgery on quality of life instead of returning to baseball shape, is one of the many benefits to a player whose body and spirit were working in tandem to take away his ability to hit at a high level.
It’s been clear for a while that something changed. His muscled-up arrival at spring training camp in 2020 now looks like a last-gasp effort to get back to his best, and Davis admitted he was never physically sound once the season began.
This offseason wasn’t one in which he contemplated retirement, as he had in others, Davis said. But his last comments before his spring training injury centered around vague allusions at changes to his swing and things he wished he could have done differently over the years. The former was pro forma; the latter sounds like someone who has spent a lot of time trying to make peace with what’s happened.
No one’s doubting the introspective Davis has thought about the disappointing end of his career. His struggles clearly weighed on him at times, though his efforts to get better seemed mainly contained to rehashing his old plans from when he was in his prime. It was something, but not enough. Years of his reflections on what’s gone wrong and declarations on how he’d get right eventually started to ring hollow, and perhaps Davis knew it.
But he always hung on to the moments where things were good, perhaps to a fault. It’s been difficult for fans to do the same. Social media was abuzz with Davis’ best blasts Thursday morning, bringing back the memories from when Camden Yards had a pulse that have been buried by all the losing that’s happened since.
Some cite Davis’ contract as a reason why the team was dismantled in 2018, with stars such as Manny Machado, Jonathan Schoop, Zack Britton and Kevin Gausman all traded away as free agency loomed. Davis not only had the distinction of being the one who stayed, but also the one who fell off precipitously when others such as Nelson Cruz or Nick Markakis never did.
Others now see him as an impediment to Orioles investments that will prevent this string of 100-loss seasons from continuing, though those signings aren’t likely on tap, regardless of Davis’ contract status.
It’s been the case for a while that Davis’ playing career was essentially over for the Orioles. Now, everything is truly past tense with him. He’ll be welcomed back for his community work and deserves to be celebrated for those efforts, and eventually will be back as a team Hall of Famer, too.
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With any luck, the Orioles will by then be enjoying the fruits of this rebuilding effort that until Thursday had to happen around Davis’ crumbling ballast of a contract. They certainly won’t be able to blame him anymore if they aren’t.