There's little question that the Orioles figure to be better in 2016 with Chris Davis than without him. The question they have to ask themselves is whether they can afford him on top of everything else that they need to get done this offseason.
Up until now, any wild fancies for both the length and total of his contract have seemed to be on the table. The people over at MLB Trade Rumors have cast the bones and read the tea leaves to give a good ballpark guess: six years, $144 million.
That's a big number, but not one that is so outrageously large that the Orioles ought to be priced out of it before the bidding even gets underway. They can do $24 million of average annual value. Whether it's low enough that they'll get in there at that level is a different story - and if the number starts to balloon, say by adding a few million per year in AAV, or by adding a seventh year, it does swing into the territory where the Orioles will have an uncomfortable choice to make.
When you get down to it, the Orioles payroll situation is such that it feels like they should be able to spend $45-50 million more for next season than they currently have committed. That's based on an assumption that the O's will be able to continue a pattern of increasing payroll by about $10 million per year, which has been done in each offseason of Dan Duquette's tenure as GM. The Orioles should not be afraid to blow half or more of that money in one place.
Sometimes you have to go big or go home
It's true that a $24 million salary for Davis would represent about 1/6th of the team's total payroll next year. That is a lot of money to have tied up in one player. You can pretty much rule out that they can use free agency to fill every hole they need to fill if half of their available money gets tied up in Davis.
Then again, sometimes it's better to spend bigger on one player than try to patch together something from cheaper players. The O's could have had Nelson Cruz on the 2015 team at about $15 million per year. The Orioles sunk as much money as that into position players who were released over the course of the year. Cruz would not have solved every problem the team had this year, but he would have solved one, and he'd be a solution for a problem that needs to be solved for next year, too.
When considering a giant contract for Davis or anybody else, more is at stake than just the 2016 payroll. The Orioles have a lot of payroll space available this offseason because they entered the year with many pending free agents. That won't be the case a year from now; only Brian Matusz and Nolan Reimold are currently set to be free agents after next season, and that's assuming either of those guys are even tendered for the 2016 season.
It could be that the only soon-to-be free agents playing on next year's Orioles are ones signed to one-year contracts this offseason. There won't be much money coming off the books for 2017 as things stand right now.
More on the Davis ripple effect
Would you still want the O's to lock in on Davis if it means they "have" to trade Zach Britton after next season? What if Chris Tillman or Miguel Gonzalez has a rebound next year only to find that the O's "must" non-tender or trade them because they've committed so much of their payroll to Davis? These concerns shouldn't cost the O's front office any sleep, but those are questions they can't ignore entirely, either.
Whether or not you think that the Orioles ought to re-sign Davis, this same consideration will have to be made for how they behave on the free agent market. If they were to instead sign four $12 million per year players, or three $15 million per year players, they'd still be likely to end up with little breathing room next offseason unless they trade or toss aside existing O's contributors. The O's could again be looking to fill multiple holes, this time without much in the way of resources to do so.
In free agency, you don't always get what you pay for
When you're splashing in the range of the $10-12 million per year player, you're lucky to get adequate, like Houston has gotten from Scott Feldman (3 years, $30 million) or like Atlanta got in year 1 from Nick Markakis (4 years, $44 million). Get unlucky - or if a team made an ill-conceived signing to begin with - and you could end up with, well, Ubaldo Jimenez (4 years, $50 million), Chase Headley (4 years, $52 million), or Ervin Santana (4 years, $55 million).
The Orioles can't compete if they're trying to chase down market value for adequate that might not even end up being adequate. These players are seldom a bargain and far more often they turn into problems. So maybe they're better off blowing half their allotment on one big free agent - if it's the right free agent. Many O's fans, myself included, hope that Davis is the right one.
Of course, there are perils to trying to raid the bargain bin for too many roster spots at one time, too. The corner outfield spots on the 2015 O's are the testament to that. You can get one year answers for a modest cost, though. After all, that's what Cruz cost them in 2014, and for 2015, they could have had Colby Rasmus for $8 million, if they wanted. Better to have paid up for that than to have wasted time, money, and prospects on the likes of Alejandro De Aza, Delmon Young, and Travis Snider. A team can't be scared of risk all of the time or they'll never make any good decisions. Every move carries risk.
Signing Davis, or any big-ticket free agent, virtually guarantees the O's are raiding the bargain basement again for at least one starting pitching spot and at least one outfield spot. They may have already started doing this for the rotation with Tuesday's waiver claim on Vance Worley. They'd probably be left chasing "adequate" for one outfield or rotation place, likely lacking the wherewithal to do both.
All of this adds up to an uninspiring offseason, Davis or no Davis, even with all of the money that they seem to have available to spend. Then again, Duquette's first offseason wasn't so inspiring either. The O's went on to win the 2012 wild card. The offseason heading into the 2014 season was also not exciting until the signings of Jimenez and Cruz after spring training began; they went on to win the AL East.
$50 million sounds like a whole heck of a lot of money, and it is, but it's not as much as it sounds like for a baseball team with as much that needs to be done as the Orioles. Here's hoping they spend, and spend smart, to get themselves back into the postseason picture. More than just that, here's hoping that spending smart can include bringing back Davis.