Heading into the 2015 season, fans of the Orioles knew it was now or never for their team. Several of its core players — Matt Wieters, Chris Davis, Steve Pearce, Wei-Yin Chen, Bud Norris, and Darren O'Day, all of whom contributed significantly to the club's 2014 division title — would hit the free agent market after the season. If Baltimore wanted to make a run for a championship, they would have to do it in 2015, because most of those players would leave after that.
A year later, we already know what came of the 2015 season. The Orioles sputtered out of contention in August, finishing the year at an even 81-81 — twelve wins behind the division-leading Blue Jays and five wins out of the postseason. Strangely enough, though, the doom and gloom hasn't yet transpired. Out of those six players, only Chen has really departed*, on a five-year, $80 million deal with the Marlins. Wieters came back on a one-year deal after accepting the qualifying offer; O'Day signed a four-year, $38 million contract to remain a Bird through 2019; and, as of this morning, Davis has joined them.
*Norris signed with the Braves, but the Orioles cut him at midseason, so that doesn't really count.
Per Jon Heyman, the deal will cover seven seasons and pay Davis $161 million. That means an average value of $23 million each year — making this the largest contract for both overall and average value in Baltimore's history. It also ties with C.C. Sabathia's original deal with the Yankees for the 20th most expensive baseball contract of all time. That's certainly a lot of money for a not-especially-affluent team to commit to one player. Can Davis make it worthwhile?
In the end, the contract will probably not look great. At a conservative price of $7 million per win, we would expect Davis to produce 23 WAR over the life of the deal — an average of 3.3 per year. Steamer foresees him earning only 2.4 WAR in 2016, and ZiPS's 3.8-win projection doesn't improve the outlook by much. If Davis loses half a win per year as he ages, the final tally could look something like this:
Let's split the difference between ZiPS's optimism and Steamer's pessimism. That gives us an estimated total WAR of 11.2; at $7 million a win, that yields a total contract value of...$78.4 million, less than half of what the Orioles inked Davis for. Even if we raise our expectations to, say, $8 million a win, the appropriate contract would give Davis $89.6 million. The average FanGraphs voter deemed a $109.3 million contract appropriate.
With that said, the deal shouldn't be a disaster. Although it has garnered more than a few comparisons to Ryan Howard's atrocious contract with the Phillies, these don't seem warranted. For one thing, when the Howard deal began in 2012, he was 33, whereas Davis will turn 30 in March. Yes, Howard's contract covered five years instead of seven, so the age gap matters slightly less. Still, the Orioles will get Davis' peak years under the deal, albeit at the cost of his decline ones.
Moreover, in his career prior to the extension, Howard performed much worse on the basepaths and in the field than Davis has to date:
|DRS (at 1B)
|UZR (at 1B)
The fact that Howard has never played a position other than first, whereas Davis has shown some versatility in a corner outfield spot, further magnifies the defensive disparity.
A couple of other general factors could work in Davis' favor. He's developed some semblance of plate discipline in recent years, culminating in a career-high 11.7 percent unintentional walk rate last season. Plus, he's never suffered any major injuries as a professional — since 2012, he's missed a total of 18 games from various minor ailments. If he doesn't lose his composure and stays healthy, he could stave off decline for a few more seasons than we'd expect.
Even given all of this, though, the risk here is massive. Davis still derives his success from hitting the ball hard, and when his clout begins to deteriorate, he could fall off a cliff. If and when that happens, he may see his walk rate drop: He's taken free passes mainly because pitchers have avoided him (43.0 percent zone rate in 2015, 10th-lowest in the majors), not because he hasn't chased unhittable pitches (32.5 percent O-Swing rate in 2015, 61st-highest in the majors). And as we saw with Howard — who also had a sterling record of health before missing 164 games over the first two years of his contract — injuries can afflict anyone, even those who have dodged them in the past. Davis certainly isn't a bad baserunner or defender, but at age 30 he presumably won't improve from here.
Why would the Orioles sign Davis for such an exorbitant sum, when he carries all of this risk? He still has elite upside — the AL's fourth-best player in 2013 and fifth-best player in 2015 could remain at that level. Of course, the downside almost certainly negates that. The Orioles didn't seem to have much competition when it came to Davis, and their approach of reserving the large contract for him made little sense. Perhaps worst of all, they may have outbid themselves in the negotiations; like Zapp Brannigan, their desperation got the better of them.
In the short term, Baltimoreans such as myself will get to cheer on Davis' home runs for the next few years. After he brought us such happiness during his previous time in Charm City, some part of me likes the prospect of having him back. Nevertheless, he will only depreciate from this point, so those long balls may prove fleeting. The price of retaining their favorite players may come back to haunt the Orioles a few years down the road, when Manny Machado and other young players hit the free-agent market. Overall, the image of a stingy Peter Angelos has probably disappeared in the minds of fans; the new picture of a wasteful Angelos may linger even longer.
. . .