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Orioles Need Sixty Percent Of The Best Chris Davis

September 29, 2018
Everybody thinks the Texas Rangers traded first baseman Chris Davis and right-hander Tommy Hunter to the Baltimore Orioles for relief pitcher extraordinaire Koji Uehara July 30, 2011. 

Well, that is only partly correct. Rangers general manager Jon Daniels and then-Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail initially couldn't totally agree on the terms of the deal. That's when MacPhail went to Orioles owner Peter Angelos and explained the Orioles would have to throw in a significant bundle of cash -- $2 million to be exact -- to get Davis.

With Angelos' consent, MacPhail delivered a wonderful parting gift to the Orioles, just two months before he would walk away from his team presidency position. But Davis has become the parting gift that turned into more of a nightmare. 

It's easy now for everyone to throw their hands up and say, “What was Peter Angelos thinking in signing Davis to a seven-year, $161 million contract?” 

I'll allow that Davis' contract marks a low point in Angelos' history of negotiations for his baseball team, but I say that only in terms of the total compensation offered by the club, not regarding the merits of signing Davis. Even with how poorly Davis has performed through the first three years of the contract, I still have hope Davis can provide some value in the future, especially given how his contract was structured.

During Davis' first four full seasons with the Orioles, the slugging first baseman averaged 530 at-bats, 136 hits, 27 doubles, 39 home runs and 103 RBIs while batting .256 with an on-base percentage of .339. Those numbers include a catastrophic 2014 campaign, during which he was suspended 25 games for the use of Adderall. Davis hadn't received permission from MLB to take Adderall to treat his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Davis posted a .196 batting average, 26 home runs, 72 RBIs and a .300 on-base percentage during his ill-fated season.

But in 2015 with free agency beckoning, Davis returned to form by slugging 47 home runs and knocking in 117 runs while batting .262 with a .361 on-base percentage. He was using Vyvanse to treat his ADHD, which was cleared by MLB.

All of this merely recounts what went into the grossest overpay in the history of the team. But just as it's not fair to simply say the Orioles traded for Davis, it's not exactly fair to say Davis didn't give something fairly significant back to the Orioles during his and agent Scott Boras' prolonged negotiations with the Orioles.

Davis' deal gets characterized as a seven-year, $161 million deal, which averages out to $23 million per year. But the fact is the Orioles will be paying Davis for a long time beyond the seven-year term. That's because Davis was willing to take $3.5 million per year from 2023-2032 and $1.4 million annually from 2033-2037. It adds up to $42 million of deferred money.

So while Birdland can get all up in arms about this contract, the fact of the matter is the two final years of this deal -- which turned it into a seven-year term -- were what bought the Orioles some salary flexibility. Davis is actually getting $17 million per year throughout the seven-year term, not $23 million.

The contract that most closely resembles the Davis deal was the five-year, $125 million deal the Philadelphia Phillies gave to slugging first baseman Ryan Howard in April 2010. What gets lost in the shuffle a bit is Howard was in the second year of a three-year, $54 million extension when he signed the five-year deal.

When taken together, during his last eight years with the Phillies -- 2009-2016 -- Howard earned $179 million, or just under Davis' on-paper average annual value of $23 million per year. Keeping in mind Davis did offer the Orioles a significant deferral, these contracts are fairly similar.

There is no denying the Phillies had more pure evidence that their evaluation of Howard's value was accurate than the Orioles had when they signed Davis. During the three seasons prior to awarding Howard that initial three-year, $54 million extension in 2009, Howard averaged 51 home runs, 143 RBIs and an on-base percentage of .385.

In Howard's case, it was his torn Achilles tendon that rendered him a very different player for the new five-year contract that began in 2012. Howard suffered the injury during the last play of the Phillies' decisive Game 5 playoff loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011.

In Davis' case, there is no simple smoking gun other than thinking the contract itself has weighed so heavily on his mind that it serves as his personal, psychological version of an Achilles tear.

Davis had an eight-day break in June to work on things with hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh and vice president of baseball operations Brady Anderson. He was batting .150 with three home runs and 15 RBIs at the time of the break. To his credit, Davis worked the batting average up to .175 through Sept. 11, and he has improved his home run and RBI totals from god-awful to just weak.

The analytics folks will tell you Davis is a lost cause, which is probably a higher percentage call than what I am going to hope and root for. 

If the Orioles can get 60 percent of the best version of Davis, that comes out to about 30 home runs, 82 RBIs and solid if not spectacular defense, which isn't horrible for $17 million a year. The team and Davis probably deserve at least that much out of the rest of the first baseman's time in an Orioles uniform. 

Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox

Issue 247: September 2018 

Originally published Sept. 17, 2018