In the second year of his record-setting contract with the Baltimore Orioles, Chris Davis has already turned into a disaster.
Seven years, $161 million — Chris Davis signed the largest contract in the history of the Baltimore Orioles on January 21, 2016 (nearly $80 million more than the $85.5 million guaranteed to franchise icon Adam Jones). The move was panned by nearly every insider around the league. Davis, the one-dimensional slugger, came back to the Orioles at the behest of owner Peter Angelos. The front office, ready to move on after putting over $150 million on the table, had the rug pulled out from under their feet.
Forced to negotiate against themselves because Angelos wanted to keep Davis, the Orioles were in a no-win spot. Nearly two years into the deal, it is clear the Orioles will be left holding the bag on what could turn into one of the worst contracts in MLB history. In over 1,000 plate appearances since signing the deal, Davis has batted .218/.325/.448 with 56 home runs and 347 strikeouts in 242 games. Over half of his plate appearances have been filed away under one of the three true outcomes — home run, walk, strikeout.
Things have gotten so bad for Davis this season that he was given a day off on Thursday against right-hander Chris Smith of the Oakland Athletics. Smith, 36, has not won an MLB game since 2008 and throws a fastball that barely tops 85 mph. In no uncertain terms, he is the type of pitcher a $161-million man is expected to punish.
Orioles manager Buck Showalter is trying to do everything in his power to spin Davis’ brief trip to the bench as a mere opportunity to hit the reset button on a season that is spiraling down the drain for the big slugger.
“Chris is a guy that when he’s good, he can really carry it for an extended period of time,” Showalter said. “And when he struggles, it can be a challenge for him — just like a lot of guys. But we’re going to need him these last six weeks or so, and I have a lot of confidence that he’s going to be a guy that we can count on.”
There’s truth to what Showalter says, but Davis has been lost at the plate for the better part of two seasons. Nearly 40 percent of his strikeouts the past two years have been of the caught-looking variety. In his best season, 2013, Davis struck out looking 24.1 percent of the time. That number is now up to 38.3 percent in 2017. The total percentage of pitches in the strike zone that Davis has taken a swing at has fallen off a cliff. This is a hitter who has become so locked in on hitting the few pitches that pass within the happy zone of his uppercut swing, that any other pitch is written off.
At the age of 31, Davis is about to exit his prime and enter an even sharper phase of decline. It’s not a great place to be for a hitter whose slumps have a strange way of eating away entire seasons, but the Orioles knew what they were getting into.
Most Orioles fans have a complicated relationship with 88-year-old owner Peter Angelos. Since assuming control of the club in 1993, Angelos has never been shy about getting his hands dirty when it comes to assembling his roster. In 1994, he kicked off a spending splurge by signing All-Stars Rafael Palmeiro, Lee Smith, Sid Fernandez and Chris Sabo. That Orioles team was 63-49 when the strike wiped out the rest of the season, but Angelos was one of the few owners to publicly speak out against his fellow owners and their involvement in the strike.
In the early years of Camden Yards, Angelos had the Orioles spending nearly as much as the hated New York Yankees, all while keeping ticket prices among the lowest in the league. Life was good, and the Orioles went to the ALCS twice. Then, the dark years hit. Angelos, never one to hit the pause button, continued attempting to spend through the 14 straight losing seasons while neglecting the farm system and player development. It does not take an advanced mathematics degree from an Ivy League institution to realize the sheer lunacy behind that approach.
Even with the wheels greased on the current winning machine the Orioles have assembled, Angelos refuses to keep his hands out of the cookie jar. He has brought spending on international free agents to a grinding halt, forced Dan Duquette to re-sign Davis even with other cheaper options on the open market and has been hesitant to spend big on the one glaring weakness his team has — starting pitching. Along the way, the Orioles have been one of the worst organizations in the history of Major League Baseball when it comes to developing starting pitching. The last All-Star starter drafted and groomed by the franchise was Mike Mussina, who debuted in 1991.
The best thing an owner like Angelos — who clearly wants to have a good team — can do is step aside, sign the checks and allow his baseball people to make the right call on building a roster and farm system. Pushing all the money into the 25-man roster at the expense of the farm systems is no way to build a sustainable winner, and is the reason the Orioles are staring into a roster Armageddon in 2018 when Manny Machado, Adam Jones and Zach Britton hit free agency.
Chris Davis is the easy target for Orioles fans right now because he is the lead anchor on the payroll looking like the second coming of Ryan Howard. The blame still falls where it has fallen for the past 20 years of ups and downs — the owner. Wanting to win regardless of the financial cost is commendable — Pittsburgh Pirates fans would die for an owner with that outlook on life — but the money is wasted without a well-defined plan. Theo Epstein has had success wherever he goes because he has been given a clear runway by his owners to make the best possible baseball decisions without interference. It takes a comprehensive and patient approach, a concept Angelos, for all his positive attributes, has never seemed to grasp as an owner.
Three playoff appearances in six seasons and the most wins in the American League since 2012 is nothing to scoff at, but it could have been a lot easier and sustainable with a hands-off owner. Peter Angelos will have only himself to blame if his team’s current window of contention ends without a World Series title, whether or not Davis finds a cure for what ails him with a few days on the bench.