This morning, after a long and protracted negotiation that finally resulted in the team threatening to pursue alternative free agents, the Orioles reportedly agreed to re-sign their slugging first baseman Chris Davis. The price? $161 million over seven years, giving Davis the same annual average value as Jason Heyward, the winter’s best available position player. And Davis was able to land this contract despite the fact this contract is probably going to be a disaster and that the market for hitters has been quite frigid this winter.
Given the limited suitors looking for a first baseman, the remaining crop of quality outfielders, and the risks surrounding Davis’ skillset, this might be Scott Boras’ most impressive victory over reason yet. As an agent, he has perfected the ability to go around the baseball operations department, dealing directly with owners who simply don’t have the same level of knowledge as the people they employ to run their team on a daily basis. Except in this case, even Peter Angelos had to know he was bidding against himself.
Let’s look at the other teams that were weak at first base. The Phillies, Rockies, and Brewers are rebuilding, and aren’t in the market for high-end free agents. The Marlins spent their money on pitching instead. The Rays don’t swim in these waters. The Angels are resisting going over the luxury tax, and outfield would be a need before first base even if they did. The Astros are keeping the spot open for A.J. Reed. The Twins don’t have money to spend. The Blue Jays spent their money on pitching. The Rangers want a right-handed hitter and aren’t looking to spend big.
Outside of Baltimore, there was just no market for Chris Davis this winter. Boras’ attempts to sell him as an outfielder to expand his market even fell flat, as the market for outfielders is remarkably frigid as well. Sure, maybe Chris Davis could play left for a year or two, but if a team wanted a slugging outfielder, they could just sign Justin Upton or Yoenis Cespedes and not have to worry about the risk of the position switch. So, realistically, Boras’ opportunity here was to get Peter Angelos to bid against himself, ignoring the fact that no other team was a realistic threat to sign Davis away from them. And he somehow managed to get the Orioles owner to do exactly that.
In a position where the team had all the leverage in the world, Boras still managed to extract a premium price for a non-premium player. This is why he’s the best in the world at what he does. And unfortunately for the Orioles, they’re going to pay the long-term price for dealing with baseball’s best salesman.
Based on the $8 million per win estimate, here’s what the Orioles are paying Davis to do over the next seven years.
|2016||30||4.1||$8.0 M||$32.8 M|
|2017||31||3.6||$8.4 M||$30.2 M|
|2018||32||3.1||$8.8 M||$27.3 M|
|2019||33||2.6||$9.3 M||$24.1 M|
|2020||34||2.1||$9.7 M||$20.4 M|
|2021||35||1.6||$10.0 M||$15.9 M|
|2022||36||1.1||$10.2 M||$11.2 M|
To get to this price, Davis needs to be a true talent +4 WAR player right now, and he needs to age decently. Steamer sees him as a +2.4 WAR player right now, a projection that would suggest Davis is worth $61 million over the next seven years, not $161 million. ZIPS is more optimistic, putting him at +3.8 WAR for 2016, but the contract estimation tool still spits out only $142 million over seven years even at that higher forecast. Combining ZIPS and Steamer, Davis projects as a +3.1 WAR player for 2016, and would be worth $98 million over seven years.
Of course, the counter-argument with these guys is always that WAR underrates sluggers; teams have been overpaying for home runs forever under this premise. It’s the kind of notion that got Josh Hamilton $125 million, and Prince Fielder $216 million, and Ryan Howard a $125 million extension two years away from free agency. The Orioles are betting that Davis isn’t just the next in a long line of failed free agent sluggers who got overpaid for their ability to hit dingers in their 20s, and follows an arc more like Jim Thome, who put up +29 WAR over his age 30-36 seasons. But you know why we have to go back to Jim Thome? Because there aren’t any recent examples of high-strikeout first baseman producing significant value after they turn 30.
Over the last decade, nine first baseman have produced at least +10 WAR during their age 30-36 seasons; all nine of them have struck out at rates no worse than league average during that time. The most productive high-strikeout slugging first baseman on the wrong side of 30 since 2006? Carlos Pena, who put up a 113 wRC+ and +10 WAR over the final seven years of his career. There’s also Mike Napoli (117 wRC+, +9 WAR), Russell Branyan (117 wRC+, +8 WAR), and Adam Dunn (108 wRC+, +3 WAR) before you get into the total disasters of guys like Howard and Richie Sexson.
The swing-hard-and-hit-the-crap-out-of-the-ball skillset has not aged well historically, and has aged even worse lately. Davis already showed the downside of what can happen when his power waned in 2014; a 25-35 home run version of Chris Davis isn’t a very good player, given his contact limitations. Unfortunately for the Orioles, they’re probably going to see a lot more of that kind of player than the 2013/2015 versions of Davis.
If the Orioles were in a position to take advantage of a short-term boost, you could maybe justify overpaying to push the team over the hump into the postseason. But after losing Wei-Yin Chen, and without having made any real moves to upgrade a pretty terrible corner outfield situation, the Orioles look like the worst team in the American League East headed into 2016. Most likely, even if Davis does manage to hit well next year, it still won’t be enough to push them into the postseason race.
At this point, now that they’ve set themselves up with a long-term albatross, stopping the spending after this is the worst thing the team could do. They still need two outfielders and a starting pitcher, and you don’t sign a 30 year old slugger to a seven year deal right before you begin a rebuilding project. If this deal is going to work for Baltimore, it’s going to have to pay dividends in the next two or three seasons, and right now, this roster doesn’t look quite good enough to take advantage of the the next few years before Davis’ skills completely atrophy.
The end of this deal is almost certainly going to be a disaster for the Orioles. The big question is whether the “end of the deal” represents the last three years of the deal, or the last six years of the deal if Davis struggles in 2016. For their sake, they better hope that this high-strikeout slugger figures out how to retain his skills better than all the others who came before him.
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