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Imagining the 2016 Orioles without Chris Davis

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The Tigers owner reportedly wanted to sign Davis last offseason until the GM stopped him. What would a ‘16 O’s team without Davis look like?

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Toronto Blue Jays
Would the Orioles have been better off without this guy? Probably not.
Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Can you imagine what the 2016 Orioles would have looked like without Chris Davis on the roster? For better or worse, the team would have been very different. We may have come closer than we knew at the time to this happening. A Jon Heyman column over the weekend passed along this rumor about another team’s interest in Davis this past offseason:

More and more it sounds like (Tigers) owner Mike Ilitch would have done a very big deal for Chris Davis (close to $200 million) had GM Avila not put the kibosh on it.

This would have been a surprise, if not the biggest surprise in the world. Ilitch, the Tigers owner, has done big deals with Scott Boras in the past and may have been willing to do one again. And if anyone would end up hearing about that, it would probably be Heyman, who is often the most plugged in guy when big Boras clients are involved.

Just how close this came to happening is not something we can know from this little rumor. Still, it’s the offseason for the Orioles and there’s nothing to talk about, so let’s go down the road of a hypothetical.

Take out Davis and what does the team look like? Maybe Mark Trumbo plays first base instead and the Orioles invest the money they spent on Davis on one of the big name outfield free agents who were still out there when they signed Davis: Justin Upton or Yoenis Cespedes.

The Orioles were rumored to have done some negotiating with both of those players before they signed Davis, though it was never clear to me how serious that interest was and how much of it was just the Orioles trying to bring Boras to the bargaining table about Davis. In this world where Davis goes to the Tigers, I think the O’s end up with either Cespedes or Upton.

Another Heyman rumor from late January even suggested the O’s offered a five year contract to Cespedes after signing Davis. That sounded unbelievable at the time, but maybe it wasn’t, since the Orioles did go on to sign Yovani Gallardo and very nearly sign Dexter Fowler in February. They had more money to play with than we knew right then.

If you don’t like that Davis batted only .221 this season, and also don’t like that he struck out 219 times, you may enjoy the hypothetical vision of the Orioles with either Upton or Cespedes in right field instead of Trumbo. I’m not going to say “if you don’t like Trumbo in right field” because that’s not an if. Trumbo is not a right fielder and should never have been in right field.

However, it’s not that easy to just plug Cespedes or Upton into right field and Trumbo at first base and then say that their offensive production would have been exactly the same as they managed in New York and Detroit, respectively, with better defense. Cespedes has never played an inning in right field in his MLB career, while Upton has not played any right field since the 2013 season and hasn’t been a full-time right fielder since 2012.

Either would have probably done better than Trumbo out in right field if only because it’d be hard for a couple of guys who actually are corner outfielders to do worse, but they may have just ended up in left field at the expense of playing time for Hyun Soo Kim, with someone like Joey Rickard getting right field playing time instead. Rickard at least had speed but still was not a good fielder.

With Cespedes batting .280/.354/.530 for the Mets this season, you can even say that he might have represented an improvement for the O’s lineup over Davis. That’s a great batting line, and with Cespedes having a 1.081 OPS against left-handed pitchers this year, that would have even addressed one of the O’s biggest weaknesses - though that was against his career trend.

All of that is assuming he would have performed exactly the same in Baltimore, which is no sure thing, but it’s the best we can do. The 2016 O’s would have been better with Cespedes, which they surely believed and that’s why they tried to sign him.

It’s less clear whether Upton would have helped the Orioles offense any. His overall batting line of .246/.310/.465 is not bad, but not inspiring either for the first year of a six year, $130+ million contract. Although Upton ended up tying a career high with 31 home runs, he was also batting .236/.295/.407 for the season at the end of August. Only an unbelievably hot September saved him from a bit of a disaster season.

Whether you prefer Baseball Reference’s 2.0 WAR or Fangraphs 1.4 WAR for Upton, the Tigers were surely hoping for more in year one of their Upton contract and they didn’t get it. And if Upton has a monster 2017, he can opt out if he wants - and if he doesn’t have a monster 2017, well, the Tigers are on the hook for four more years.

There’s no doubt that Upton’s been the more consistent performer in his career, but he’s now also posted career lows for batting average and on base percentage in each of the past two seasons. That’s a downward trend in the direction of an OK-to-good player rather than a good-to-great player. Even a deep-pocketed team will be in trouble eventually if their OK players are getting $20+ million per season.

Maybe Upton is more likely than Davis to rebound based on his career to date and being a year and a half younger. That’s the conclusion our friends at Bless You Boys - the Tigers blog on SB Nation - draw when looking at this same Davis vs. Upton information.

Call me a homer if you like, but I’ll take the guy who just hit 38 home runs despite being seriously hampered by a mystery hand injury for the season. Davis was still valuable - more valuable than Upton, in fact, at 3.0 WAR or 2.7 WAR, depending on which site you check - even despite that low batting average due to his willingness to take walks and his ability to play solid defense for first base.

And that was Davis when clearly not at his best. It remains an open question whether the hand injury will go away over the offseason and not come back, whether it might require surgery that could hamper or sideline him next season, or if it’s just always going to be like that from now on. At the moment, I feel good about the Orioles chances of continuing to get value out of Davis.

Could the 2016 O’s season have possibly turned out better without Davis around? It might have, especially if they had gone ahead and signed Cespedes instead. Yet it could have been a lot worse if they signed someone different, or if they had signed no one at all.