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Four years later, Chris Davis’ costly Orioles contract continues to ripple across the organization

Every winter, a new batch of free-agent contracts in baseball populate the list of the richest ever signed. The Orioles don’t have much occasion to swim in that end of the pool anymore, but when they did four years ago Thursday in signing first baseman Chris Davis to a seven-year, $161 million contract, they established a cautionary tale about what can go wrong with those massive deals.

It will probably be a long time before a slugger on the other side of 30 years old gets a contract like that.

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To that point, Davis had been a fearsome hitter with the Orioles, if not a consistent one. He led the majors with 53 home runs in 2013 and 47 home runs in 2015, with a miserable 2014 season that featured him missing the team’s playoff run because a drug suspension sandwiched in between.

By the time he hit the open market, Davis was one of the premier bats in free agency. And when Orioles ownership worked with his agent, Scott Boras, on a contract with $42 million deferred to inflate the sticker price and keep Davis in Baltimore, his addition was seen as a signal that the Orioles were ready to push forward with a proven playoff core and seek a championship with their beloved young roster.

What happened, of course, was hardly that. In retrospect, they would have taken a season like Davis’ first under the contract happily. He hit 38 home runs with a .221 average but a .792 OPS and a 113 wRC+(weighted runs created) with 2.9 wins above replacement (WAR), according to FanGraphs. The league-high 219 strikeouts, however, was a sign of a decline that wouldn’t stop.

Davis’ home run totals dropped in each of the next three seasons — 26, 16 and 12, respectively — and the years were only distinguished by the ignominy they brought. In 2018, when Davis hit .168 and was worth minus-3.2 WAR, it was one of the worst seasons by a full-time position player on record. The beginning of 2019 featured the longest hitless streak in major league history.

Over the four seasons of the contract, Davis has been worth minus-1.6 WAR. Considering the cost of one WAR on the free-agent market in the winter of 2016 was $8 million, the Orioles won’t reach the approximately 15 wins (and up to 20, with deferred money factored in) they paid for on that contract.

By any measure, no matter what the Orioles do with Davis going forward, it will be one of the least productive hitting contracts in baseball history. Ryan Howard’s long contract extension with the Philadelphia Phillies comes to mind, as does Albert Pujols’ with the Los Angeles Angels, but the latter was more productive early.

All that’s left to wonder is how much of the three years left on this deal Davis spends in an Orioles uniform. In 2019, a year that began so terribly for him, his teammates rallied around him. He also made substantial donations in the community, chiefly to the University of Maryland Medical Center.

But baseball-wise, manager Brandon Hyde found ways to operate around Davis that it was harder to do previously. Davis simply didn’t play that often in 2019, with 105 games and frequent days off. Trey Mancini still got to be an everyday player, this time in right field, with a hefty dose of time at first base mixed in. At least in 2019, the team moved its competitive timeline back so far that Davis didn’t really take playing time away from any part of the team’s future. Many of those young players weren’t going to be called up to the majors anyway.

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This year, that could be different. Renato Núñez at designated hitter and Davis at first base will make for a crowded group when top hitting prospect Ryan Mountcastle is called up to the majors, even if Mountcastle is trying his hand in the outfield. Anthony Santander, DJ Stewart, Yusniel Diaz, Ryan McKenna and even Cedric Mullins are young players who could push Mancini out of a corner outfield spot and back to first base, too.

With a 26th roster spot this year, the Orioles might be able to maneuver with Davis through the fifth year of the contract. Executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias, who inherited Davis’ contract along with the rebuilding project he took on, has often said how seriously the Orioles take the fact that Davis is under contract through the 2022 season.

The Orioles’ roster decisions as they relate to payroll, plus their low attendance numbers and the expected check they’ll have to give to the Washington Nationals to settle the MASN dispute, mean there’s probably not enough money around to buy Davis out of the contract immediately. If there was a surplus of that kind of cash, it could probably still be used better elsewhere until the team is ready to compete again.

But Elias said at last month’s winter meetings that the team’s approach will be different this year, indicating that a better understanding of what’s been hurting Davis could bring a change in his program. There wasn’t necessarily a finality to it, but certainly a sense that things had to change.

“I think now that [manager Brandon Hyde] and I have been here a year, and have experienced a year with Chris, we have a lot more feel for the situation,” Elias said last month. “There was still some hope last year that 2018 was a little bit of an aberration and that new people, new environment might have some affect. And here we are again, again in 2019. The message is the same, that we all want to figure out a way for him to get better.”

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