Last year was awful, as bad as it gets. But this year, as far as Chris Davis is concerned, may be more sobering.
We all remember Davis’s numbers from 2018. The .168 average, the lowest in baseball history by a player qualifying for the batting title. The dizzying strikeout rate. The 16 home runs, down from 26 the year before, and from 47 the year before the Orioles decided to make him the richest man in franchise history.
But that was a fluke, Orioles fans with the sunniest dispositions could tell themselves. A year where worst came to worst. Davis wasn’t as good as they had hoped he would be, sure. But he wasn’t that bad.
They can’t tell themselves that this year, however. Because while this year — minus the oh-fer streak at its beginning — hasn’t been quite as headline-grabbing, it’s taken away that last comforting notion.
That 2018 season wasn’t an anomaly. That 2018 season is who Chris Davis is.
His metrics are up this year, but only slightly. He’s striking out at a higher rate, up to an absurd 45 percent of at-bats. Last year stood out for how far he fell, but 2019 hasn’t seen anything close to the bounce-back the Orioles had hoped an offseason spent clearing his head could bring.
He’s a part-time player now, never even in the lineup consideration against left-handers, and with the September call-ups, his role could be shrinking even more.
Of course, any discussion of next steps to take stops at his contract. He can’t be traded, as no one would take him. He can’t be sent down to the minors. He’s signed through 2022, so the team can’t just wait for September to end and be done with him.
So instead, it’s time to weigh what in baseball is always an option of absolute last resort: has the time come to take the hit, swallow the cost and cut ties with Davis? Is that the best thing for the team at this point?
Last year, the answer was still “no.” Alarming as Davis’s stats were, and as evident as the decline over the years had been, there was reason to think that, while he perhaps wouldn’t be able to hit .286 with 53 home runs again, he could still take the offseason to work on the holes in his swing he seen exploited over and over again and at least get back to where he was in 2017 (.215/26/61). It wouldn’t worth the money, but he at least wouldn’t be the gaping hole in the lineup he had become.
The other issue to consider was Davis’s veteran presence. At the end of 2018, the Orioles were suddenly a team with no new faces. Adam Jones, Manny Machado, Jonathan Schoop and the rest, leaders either in voice or by example, were gone, and in their place were a bunch of up-and-comers or never-weres that were going to have to be everyday major leaguers.
In those situations, you want all the poise in the locker room you can get. And Davis, while a flailing performer, was the veteran. He had the tenure, and he had passed the character test by withstanding the boos and scoffs that grew louder and louder during his miserable season.
Now, however, the situation has changed. The Orioles have found that leadership in Jonathan Villar, who might not stick around beyond this year, and Trey Mancini, who should. Players like Anthony Santander, Hanser Alberto and Pedro Severino are enthusiastic and lively in the dugout. The Orioles have a talent problem, but by all indications, not a character one.
Meanwhile, Davis continues to flounder at the plate. So, what’s the good that he provides, the service that keeps him on the roster?
Which brings us back to the money.
Baseball teams don’t like to cut bait with players for whom they’ve extended themselves, even if their performance almost or fully mandates it. Albert Pujols is still in the lineup for the Angels. Jacoby Ellsbury is still employed by the Yankees. And there are others. Even when it became evident to everyone in Charm City that the Ubaldo Jimenez signing had failed, the Orioles, at the height of their competitive stretch no less, continued to keep him around and hand him the ball time and time again.
And those players aren’t owed as much as is Davis, who will still get $93 million after this season, including $42 million in deferred payments. Cutting bait with Davis wouldn’t just be an unusual move, it would in essence be a historic one.
Teams have, however, gone this route before. Two years ago, the Red Sox gave up on Pablo Sandoval, even though they still owed him more than $48 million. The two situations, however, aren’t entirely apples-to-apples. The Red Sox are richer than the Orioles, they were more competitive than the Orioles will be, and they had more major league-ready prospects needing Sandoval’s spot than the Orioles will.
But it does show that eating the money isn’t the non-starter some would argue, making it just a question of whether it’s too early for that move with Davis.
If anything, though, that move might be overdue.
There is no player the Orioles would put into Davis’s spot next year who would contribute less than he has these past two years. And that money is already spent. There’s no additional penalty that comes with releasing the player versus letting the deal runs its course. The Orioles owe Chris Davis $93 million regardless of where he is next year. So why should that place be Camden Yards?
It would make sense if there was still the hope of a Davis rejuvenation and return to form. And maybe the Orioles front office somehow feels there is. But if there could have been one, there would have been one by now. The only question is whether it’s worse for $93 million to pay for nothing or for a hole in the lineup - and a lineup that in a few years could be full of promising young players at that.