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Then-Orioles economics advisor says he didn’t want team to sign Chris Davis

Owner Peter Angelos didn’t listen to advice about Davis three years ago, so here we are now.

Oakland Athletics v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The Orioles having a Chris Davis problem has been apparent for longer than just his current MLB record 0-for-49 streak. There’s something about record-setting futility that makes what was already a clear mistake reach a new level of disaster. Once you reach failure like that, nobody wants to be thought responsible.

That includes, apparently, Stephen J.K. Walters, who served as economic advisor to the Orioles from 2012-18 during the tenure of Dan Duquette. Walters published an op-ed in The Baltimore Sun on Tuesday in which he offered some insight about what happened that led to the Davis signing, and made sure to state that he was not to blame.

The idea that the seven-year, $161 million contract given to Davis was a direct result of Davis’s agent, Scott Boras, going directly to owner Peter Angelos is not a new one. Though there are still those who blame Duquette for the signing, most published reports before now have clearly pointed to ownership.

What’s new is the tale told by Walters today, which sheds some light on exactly how much of a disconnect there was between the general manager level and the ownership level about Davis:

... my O’s boss at the time (Dan Duquette) had me working on economic evaluations of a new contract for Mr. Davis starting in August of 2015; none of the contemplated offers went beyond four years. I confidently wagered Mr. Duquette a lavish lunch in Little Italy that Mr. Davis’ value on the open market would be less than nine figures, overall.

The idea that there might have been a world where the Orioles did not go beyond either four years or $100 million to sign Davis is like a punch to the gut for me. Imagine how much less miserable all of this would seem now if this was the last year of Davis’s contract. He probably would have been cut loose long before he could get himself into his current 0-49 ditch.

The man who was advising the general manager warned that it was a bad deal! This was not one isolated thing, either. Mentioning that he obviously lost the bet, Walters offered the tidbit that he had been, on the personal request of Angelos, evaluating a series of increasing offers to Davis which, as he describes it, all “promised red ink.” Yet even these escalating offers were apparently rejected by the Davis camp.

In the Walters telling, the Orioles December 1, 2015 trade for Mark Trumbo constituted the Orioles front office moving on from the idea of re-signing Davis. Trumbo could have been a one-year replacement for Davis with then-prospects Trey Mancini and Christian Walker waiting in the wings.

That’s not what Duquette said publicly at the time, as a week later at that year’s Winter Meetings he simply described the situation in terms of the team being “closer to decision time” about who would and would not be on the next year’s Orioles.

Perhaps with Walters’s evaluation in mind, Duquette also said that the team had “a clear idea of what the market is for Chris Davis in Baltimore.” Now we know that Duquette had a bigLittle Italy lunch riding on the eventual Davis contract - and we also know that both Walters and Duquette were “dismayed” that the O’s might eventually sign Davis.

Enter Angelos and people other than his general manager:

But voices within and outside the organization stressed Mr. Davis’ value on the field (though he had, in 2014, already shown a worrying tendency to slump for extended periods) and raised concerns about the P.R. hit if a star attraction was lost. And so, in January, Mr. Angelos made the commitment that he no doubt regrets.

I have the strong suspicion that Walters is well aware of who some or all of those “voices within and outside the organization” who apparently counseled Angelos, against the advice of his front office, to go ahead and make the big signing. He does not name them, so we can continue to wonder. Perhaps one was Buck Showalter and this was one of the many sources of the regularly reported friction between he and Duquette.

The more pressing question for O’s fans about Davis is what the team will do with him now. When the Orioles hired Mike Elias to be the new general manager back in November, it was the sons of Peter Angelos, John and Louis, who appeared alongside of Elias. The mantle of ownership decisionmaking seems to have shifted to them, and Elias certainly has no sentimental value about anything that happened before he was around.

All that fans know for now is that new manager Brandon Hyde will sometimes sit Davis against a left-handed pitcher, as is the case for tonight’s game against the Athletics, where lefty Brett Anderson is on the mound. When Davis does play, he is parked lower in the batting order than Showalter tended to play him even when it was apparent Davis was very bad.

Davis is worse than very bad now. It is almost like a moral victory every time he makes contact with a pitch, with fans who feel bad for him on a human level about all of this, or just want him to do better so the Orioles will be better, clinging to every 100+mph batted ball Davis has hit as a sign that there’s still potential somewhere in there. He had one on Monday night, but still went 0-5 and struck out twice.

If it was up to Walters, Davis would be written off as a sunk cost. A lot of fans haven’t needed an economist to tell them about that. The money is gone either way and now Davis is taking up a roster spot on a rebuilding team that’s trying to find out who could be a part of the future.

The Orioles can’t wait for Davis to turn things around forever, and as nice as Hyde and Elias have tried to be about him publicly, they probably won’t wait for him forever. The only thing left to find out is when their patience will run out. And hopefully the Angelos sons will listen to their general manager in a way that their father did not.