Five years ago this weekend, when the Orioles and their star free-agent slugger Chris Davis were finalizing the fateful seven-year, $161 million that the beleaguered veteran referred to recently as a “big lump that they’re kind of stuck with,” it was striking that he and so many other top free agents were still on the market in mid-January.
That year, several of the best bats on the market — including Justin Upton, Yoenis Céspedes and Ian Desmond — were all made to wait in what’s become a commonplace practice now in free agency. Some of the resulting deals worked out better than others. But now, teams are waiting later and later into the winter to make suitable offers to even the best free agents on the market.
Those who look at the Davis contract as an example of how devastating the wrong free-agent signing can be on a franchise are simply not engaging with those players at all.
The background of Davis’ deal that winter is well-worn. Coming off a torrid end to his 2015 season, Davis and several other key members of an Orioles team that was one of baseball’s best stories in the front half of that decade were free agents. The club still felt as if it had some winning left to do. Catcher Matt Wieters accepted the qualifying offer to stick around one more year, reliever Darren O’Day signed a four-year deal in December and Davis’ big bat was still on the market come January.
Ownership deemed it a worthy investment, and the deal was made to show the Orioles clubhouse and fanbase that they took this winning window seriously. Davis hit 38 home runs in that 2016 season while striking out a league-high 219 times, and the Orioles made the American League wild-card game. For both Davis and the team, it only got worse.
He missed time with an oblique strain and hit 26 home runs with a .732 OPS in 2017, then produced one of the worst seasons in major league history in 2018, batting .168 with a .539 OPS and 16 home runs.
A management change at the front office and field levels didn’t change his fortunes in 2019, with Davis raising his OPS to .601 with 12 homers in manager Brandon Hyde’s first season — one that featured those two getting into a dugout dust-up. Davis’ productive spring training meant nothing after he lost his form during last year’s COVID-19 shutdown, and a combination of a sore knee and his benching meant he appeared in just 16 games without a home run last season.
Over the five years of his contract, Davis has batted .196 with a .670 OPS and 92 home runs. His 762 strikeouts in that span are the most in baseball, while his OPS is third-worst among players with at least 2,000 plate appearances since the beginning of 2016.
Of course, it’s difficult to play that much when a player isn’t producing. Few players get the chance to struggle so badly for so long, but Davis and the Orioles are in a staring contest over the remainder of his career that neither seems to be willing to blink in.
Davis said earlier this offseason that he was wholly committed to being at spring training and doesn’t want his career to end on the note it’s on now. He also noted that the new Orioles’ front office knew that his contract was a big, expensive one when they took their jobs, as if to say such a decline in performance was to be expected.
Either way, Davis will be a bit-part player on the Orioles for as long as he remains around, barring an improbable career renaissance. Trey Mancini, who should be back from his treatment for colon cancer in 2021, is on track to be the everyday first baseman this season. Ryan Mountcastle could deputize there when not in left field, and Anthony Santander will get everyday at-bats in Mancini’s other position, right field.
The Orioles will also have the designated hitter spot to work with in the absence of Renato Núñez, but it’s safe to say that won’t be Davis’ spot either. He’ll be around until his contract expires, or one of the two sides finally decides the arrangement isn’t worth it to continue.
The sooner one side blinks, the better for all involved.
Friday is the deadline for teams to exchange salary arbitration figures ahead of a potential hearing with those players who haven’t agreed to 2021 contract terms. The Orioles have two such players: Mancini and Santander. Other arbitration-eligible players signed at the December contract tendering deadline, including Pedro Severino, Yolmer Sánchez, Shawn Armstrong and Pat Valaika.