As recently as the middle of July, the possibility of Chris Davis re-signing with the Baltimore Orioles was hardly the top priority it is now. Truth be told, the same was probably true in the warehouse, where those kinds of decisions are ultimately made. The strikeouts were outweighing the home runs.
But now it's October. The Orioles aren't playing games as they were a year ago, home runs rule the roost and Davis is again the reigning home run (and strikeout) king of baseball. Predictably, the populace is not just asking, but practically demanding the slugging first baseman be given what would amount to a lifetime contract.
And Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette, who knows the routine, is tap dancing around the free-agency issue while trying to assure the fan base that a) Davis is a top (but not only) priority; b) the organization is better off than perceived; and c) the Orioles have a lot of work to do but will have a competitive team next year.
None of which, of course, addresses the big question of the day/week/month: Will Davis be back in 2016? If you go with the flow of what you generally read or hear, the answer to that question is negative. Perhaps a bigger question is whether the Orioles will be a serious player in the negotiations. The answer to that will provide some insight to the club's strategy, not only about the coming year, but also about last offseason and the ones between now and 2018, which can already be earmarked as a pivotal year.
In case you forgot, 2018 is the last year of center fielder Adam Jones' six-year, $85.5 million contract. It is also the final year of the team's agreements with manager Buck Showalter and Duquette. And for the moment at least, that season also stands as the last one third baseman Manny Machado is under team control. So what happens between now and 2018 is going to tell a lot about where the Orioles will be heading into the third decade of the 21st century.
That brings me back to the paragraph that started all this: Will the Orioles sign Chris Davis to a long-term contract?
I'm not privy to the kind of information owner Peter Angelos and Duquette will give Jones when he gets his “sit down” to discuss the O's future, but my basic math skills are enough to render an educated guess. Cutting right to the chase, my take is the Orioles will be in the hunt for Davis, to a certain point. And my guess on that point is this -- up to $22 million annually for five years, $110 million total.
Davis' agent, Scott Boras, will scoff at those numbers at this stage of the game. That's not only his right, but his duty in the best interest of his client. If I can play agent here (heaven forbid), I'm thinking Boras will open with a bid along the lines of $25-28 million annually for six to eight years -- a total somewhere between $150-225 million.
Boras can justify asking for those numbers based on Davis' age (30 next Opening Day) and some of the more lucrative (and ridiculous) contracts given to Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim first baseman Alex Pujols and Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton, among others. Whether there's a team that can justify paying those numbers for someone whose strikeout-to-home run ratio was more than four-to-one (208-to-47) this season and five-to-one (1,090-to-203) for a career is the $150 million-plus question of the day.
At this point, I'm willing to rate the damage of Davis' home runs higher than his strikeouts, and I do think he's shown some signs of improvement as a hitter -- and I suspect the Orioles feel the same way. I just don't think they'll feel the same way more than $20-22 million annually for five years, and I wouldn't at all be surprised if their appraisal was lower than mine, say in the range of $17-18 million annually for a total of $85-100 million.
The beauty of Davis' swing will definitely be in the eyes of the big spender. Some veteran observers, perhaps even most, see it as a long, slow-developing stroke that requires an early start and thus lacks quickness. Others see the majestic, almost classic, home runs and assess the difference they could make in a lineup.
It has been left unsaid, until now, but the pending free agency of Davis, along with catcher Matt Wieters and right-handed reliever Darren O'Day -- the principal figures among those eligible -- had to be a consideration last year, when the Orioles declined to extend their offer to free-agent outfielder/designated hitter Nelson Cruz to four years. In the same vein, negotiations with Davis, in particular, will be weighed against potential long-range extensions, first for Machado and then second baseman Jonathon Schoop.
The Orioles were in the middle of the pack last year with a $119 million payroll, which was slightly less than the MLB team average. The Orioles were last above the average line around the turn of the century and actually had the highest payroll in the game (albeit at $84 million) in 1998.
With $42 million committed to Jones, right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez and shortstop J.J. Hardy, it is expected the Orioles' payroll will go north of $125 million for 2016. How far north will likely determine whether Davis returns to Baltimore. Machado, who has been in MLB's minimum wage country for three years, will eat up most, if not all, of the $4.75 million that comes off the books with the likely departure of left-hander Wei-Yin Chen, who figures to get $85 million for five years from some team, more than enough to guarantee his departure.
The Orioles will also benefit next year with two catchers (Caleb Joseph and Steve Clevenger) making a combined $1.1 million as opposed to the $8.3 million Matt Wieters made for 2015. I'm not sure whether the decision on Wieters is the easiest or toughest for the Orioles to make. It will take a qualifying offer of $16 million for the club to receive compensation in the draft if Wieters leaves as a free agent.
Without making such an offer, the Orioles would make Wieters more attractive on the free-agent market -- similar to last year, when right fielder Nick Markakis was able to secure a fourth year from the Braves, mainly because Atlanta didn't have to give up a draft choice. The gamble is Wieters might take such an offer to build his resume for a more lucrative contract than the one he's likely to get this offseason. But that has never happened before, and few believe Boras will be the first to have a client accept.
I'm sure all of the above will be included when Jones has his “sit down” with management. My guess is he'll come away with the same impression I have after looking at the entire payroll. There is room for Davis, up to a point.
My guess is the tipping point is $110 million.
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com.