Three years after Chris Davis' record contract with Orioles, ramifications for club, baseball only grow

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Absent anything but a 2014 American League East championship banner and a couple of good years of attendance, the most lasting relic from the early-to-mid-decade Orioles clubs that now seem a distant memory was established three years ago Wednesday: the seven-year, $161 million contract with two-time home run king Chris Davis.

At the time, it was a marker to fans and the team alike that the Orioles were willing to spend money to keep what they believed could still be a championship core together, though it was an expensive marker that seemed to be far outside the market for Davis' services.


Yet as they reach the deal’s midway point, the fourth season of a club-record contract, the waves are being felt not only in Baltimore but around baseball.

Even factoring out the $42 million in deferred money that kicks in when the contract runs out after the 2022 season, the present-day value of $68 million remaining for the four years of Davis' service will be difficult to extract value from.


In 2016, the first year of the deal, Davis hit 38 home runs and drove in 84 runs while batting .221, albeit with 2.8 wins above replacement (WAR), according to FanGraphs.

Considering that 1.0 WAR was worth around $8 million on the open market that winter, Davis delivered fair value that year. But as for 2017, when he hit .215 with 26 home runs in 128 games with a 0.1 WAR, the same obviously can't be said.

His nightmarish 2018, when he hit .168 with a .539 OPS and 16 home runs with a -3.1 WAR for one of the worst seasons in baseball history, means he's accumulated -0.2 WAR over the first three years of the contract. He would need to produce over 15 WAR over the remainder of the deal to cover just the present-day money. By comparison, he posted 15.1 WAR from 2012 to 2015 in an Orioles uniform when he was in his prime.

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That means Davis, 32, would need to perform the way he did in the best years of his career, but do so in a completely different baseball environment — where pitchers have reams of data on how to get him out and his own talents seem to be diminished — to deliver value for the Orioles on the most expensive contract they've ever handed out.

But that's only from a financial standpoint. The impact on the team as it moves into a new generation of Orioles baseball and the effect Davis' deal has had on the game as a whole seem just as drastic.

There was always an issue with opportunity cost in re-signing a first-baseman-only player for that long, especially going into an era in which positional flexibility is valued. The Orioles have never had any trouble finding power on the cheap, but in 2016 alone, they already had Mark Trumbo in the fold and first base prospect Trey Mancini waiting in the high minors.

The resulting baseball conundrum for the Orioles in the past several years has forced Mancini into left field and initially put Trumbo in right field. Even when Trumbo became primarily a designated hitter, that made it difficult to shuffle everyday players into the DH spot to get them a day or two off their feet.

While Trumbo is in the last year of his contract, Mancini being in the outfield means one fewer spot for the biggest strength the Orioles have in their farm system: high-level outfielders. There are only so many spots for Cedric Mullins, Yusniel Díaz, Austin Hays, DJ Stewart, and eventually Ryan McKenna and Ryan Mountcastle, to get their major league time. Mancini being in the outfield to accommodate Davis will only take those chances away.


Taking stock of all the problems Davis’ contract and his subsequent downturn in performance are causing the Orioles, the fact that there hasn't been a free-agent contract that rich since (at least until Manny Machado and Bryce Harper sign this winter) shows how the game has gone away from paying for past performance.

Davis was part of a free-agent class in 2016 that included David Price, Zack Greinke and Jason Heyward getting massive contracts with varying results, so it's not only him. But as teams trend toward youth and value over all else — the Orioles now among them — the presence of Davis and his mammoth contract amid the rubble of the Orioles' teardown shows what's between the team and a clean slate going forward.