Two years ago Tuesday, the Orioles agreed to a club-record contract with first baseman Chris Davis after a courtship that looked to have gone cold numerous times but ultimately brought the two-time home run king back to Baltimore.
At the time, his signing presaged an extension of the team's competitive window after a disappointing end to the 2015 season. The team didn't bring back Nick Markakis, but reliever Darren O'Day and Davis both returned in free agency, and the club bet on Davis as a player whose success would carry on into his 30s.
At the anniversary of his signing last season, it was unclear whether Davis' down 2016 was just the bad part of his good-year/bad-year alternations or something worse. A repeat disappointing output in 2017 has Davis entering the third year of that seven-year contract needing to prove it's not permanent.
Davis hit 47 home runs in 2015, his second time leading the league in home runs in three seasons, when he entered free agency. A torrid finish to the season vaulted him up the offensive charts and completed a season during which he bounced back from a miserable 2014 to raise his OPS more than 200 points.
Davis ultimately averaged 40 home runs per season while batting .256/.342/.533 from 2012 to 2015. He was worth 15.6 wins above replacement (WAR), according to FanGraphs, in that span.
But the long fallow stretches — even seasons — that were littered in there gave pause as to what Davis would be going forward. And these past two years, there have been far more of those periods than ever before.
In 2016, Davis led baseball with 219 strikeouts while hitting 38 home runs. He hit .221 with a .792 OPS. But strong defense helped him contribute 3.0 WAR according to Baseball-Reference.com, and 2.7 WAR according to FanGraphs. That Davis said he spent most of the year playing with the effects of a dislocated thumb, which he said affected his swing and made contact painful, made possible the idea that he could bounce back when healthy in 2017.
Still, Davis never really got going. He missed a month with an oblique strain before the All-Star break, but still struck out 195 times in 128 games while hitting .215 with a .732 OPS and 26 home runs. A defensive regression, combined with his down year at the plate, meant his WAR shrunk to 0.2, per FanGraphs, and was -0.1 on Baseball-Reference.com.
When considering Davis' value last year, it was important to note the expected production of someone who signed a deal ahead of 2016 and what they were supposed to deliver for that. While Davis' contract had a $161 million sticker price, $42 million of that is deferred, giving him $16 million a year in present salary.
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By that winter's calculation of a "win" on the open market costing $8 million each, the Orioles paid Davis for over 15 wins in present value and over 20 including the deferred cash.
With a three-win season under his belt and a strong defensive foundation built, even accounting for age regression, expecting Davis to do that wasn't completely unreasonable based on his 2016 season. But now, instead of building on that and being worth five or six wins two years into the deal, he's still around three, depending on your preferred calculation.
That all makes Davis living up to the deal that much more difficult — and that's even before putting it into the context that the Orioles find themselves in now both because of and independent of the contract.
In terms of opportunity cost, locking up their first baseman for the next seven years ahead of his age-30 season prevented the Orioles from having much flexibility at a position that's one of strength for the organization. Before Davis signed, the Orioles traded for Mark Trumbo, who ended up leading the league in home runs in 2016 before getting a three-year deal in free agency. Given his struggles as a DH as opposed to being in the field, he could use some time at first base, but can't get it. Likewise, rookie Trey Mancini broke out last year at the major league level, but had to play left field. He was fine defensively, but the team's outfield defense has slipped significantly in recent years as they've opted for hitters out there.
It also, it seems, took the Orioles away from the opportunity to sign some of their other pressing priorities as time progresses. That Manny Machado is almost assuredly leaving after this season isn't a direct connection, but the optics certainly make it seem so. Though Machado's free-agent deal will likely double Davis' when it's all said and done, combine the free-agent deals of Davis, Trumbo and O'Day, and fans are liable to wonder whether the money might not have been better used for Machado.
Though that ship has likely sailed, where it could end up hurting is in the mid-level extensions the club has coming due. Jonathan Schoop and even Kevin Gausman might see their future with the club left unsecured because of already committed money, adding another frustrating symptom to the situation.
Considering Davis' track record of exploding for months at a time, he could have a big season or two going forward that make his contract close to worth it from a strictly individual stance. But the further away he gets from his prime, the harder it will be for even an optimist to see his production outside the price being paid for it.