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Trade Retrospective: Rangers send Chris Davis to the Orioles in exchange for Koji Uehara

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The Rangers smartly chose Uehara over Heath Bell, but who knew what Davis was capable of back then?

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at New York Yankees Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

For the second straight offseason, BtBS is looking back on some of the biggest trades from years past. Check out all the entries here.

At the 2011 trade deadline, the Rangers bolstered their bullpen by trading for Koji Uehara from the Orioles. They sent Chris Davis and Tommy Hunter to Baltimore in order to complete the deal.

In this trade retrospective series, trades will still be evaluated based on what was known at the time. That is the only fair, logical way to evaluate trades because anybody can get lucky. Process over results. That being said, we will still take a look at how the trade worked out for both parties involved.

The Deal

The Rangers were in the thick of a tight divisional race — they were only two games up on the Angels at the end of July. The pressure was really raised on the Rangers when the Angels called up a highly touted prospect a few weeks earlier whom you might have heard of: Mike Trout. He had been struggling pretty badly since making his debut, but it would have been foolish to believe that would continue.

Initially, the Rangers really wanted Heath Bell. The problem was that he would only be a two-month rental, and the Padres wanted a lot for him. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

Quite frankly, I was surprised that the Rangers did not go after Uehara to start with. He cost less talent to acquire, he had an option for 2012, and he was really good since being converted to a reliever in 2010. Let’s compare the two starting in 2010 and going to when they were traded.

Bell vs. Uehara

RA9 FIP K% BB% HR/9
RA9 FIP K% BB% HR/9
Heath Bell 2.41 2.41 25.4 5.6 0.16
Koji Uehara 2.37 2.48 33.6 3.7 1.09

Those are all excellent numbers from Uehara, with the exception of his home run rate. That 9.1 K/BB ratio was especially insane. In fact, if we check the Play Index, Koji’s career 7.9 K/BB is the the greatest ever to this day among pitchers with at least 400 IP, and it is the best by a lot.

Uehara clearly looked like the better option. The big difference in home run rate can easily be explained by the ballparks in which they played. Bell pitched in cavernous Petco Park, while Uehara worked in homer-friendly Camden Yards. The then-named Rangers Ballpark is also very hitter-friendly. I would much rather have one-and-a-third seasons of the pitcher with the much better strikeout and walk rates as opposed to a third of a season from the alternative.

The big caveat is that Uehara was an extreme fly ball pitcher, with a 57.8 percent fly ball rate as a reliever. You would think that somebody with his splitter would induce lots of ground balls, but that was not the case. Putting such a pitcher in the cozy confines of Rangers Ballpark would have its risks. Still, I believe — and so did the Rangers, evidently — that was a worthwhile risk to get the extra year of control and the superior strikeout and walk rates.

The Rangers got Uehara without paying too much. Chris Davis had struggled mightily since debuting in 2008; he was demoted a few times and was a sub-replacement level player when he played in the majors. Scouts were always concerned about Davis making enough contact at the major league level, and they were proven correct. At the time he was traded, he had a career 31.7 percent strikeout rate. Coincidentally for the Rangers, he was basically Joey Gallo, though without quite having that kind of legendary power.

So why on earth did the Orioles want Davis? Well, they were in last place by a mile in 2011, with nobody to play first base in 2012. Despite the poor contact rates, Davis’s power gave him a ceiling to dream on. Trading a reliever they didn’t need for four-plus years of Davis’s potential made perfect sense. Davis would finally get regular playing time in a low-pressure environment to see if he could succeed. It was a low-risk, high-reward trade.

Even though Tommy Hunter looked like he was destined to end up in the bullpen, the Orioles were desperate to do anything to improve their awful rotation. Their starters ended 2011 with an abysmal 5.93 RA9, which was the worst in baseball by over 0.7 runs. The pitcher with the highest WAR on the team was a reliever, Jim Johnson, at 2.7 WAR. Anybody who could be even a serviceable back-end starter could be a two-win upgrade to this group.

Omitting his rough three starts in 2008, Hunter had a solid career 4.09 RA9 when he went to Baltimore. Unfortunately, that came with a 4.65 FIP because he could not strike anybody out. He was not high-reward like Davis, but he was low-risk, and any reward would be a win given the state of the Orioles’ rotation.

You could argue that the Orioles should have gotten a bit more for Uehara, but it is hard not to say that this was a good trade for both sides at the time. As long as Davis did not reach his ceiling, the Rangers would never regret the trade. Well...

The Results

Davis reached that ceiling in 2013. He made progress in 2012 to the tune of a .270/.326/.501 line with 33 home runs. He was still striking out 30 percent of the time, but he was making enough quality contact to access that great power. In 2013, he finally put it all together by hitting .286/.370/.634. He led the majors with 53 home runs and 370 total bases. His 168 wRC+ was the third-best in all of baseball behind Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera. Again, he was still striking out a lot, but his walk rate shot up from 6.6 percent to 10.7 percent.

It was expected that we would see some regression in 2014, but not to the degree that actually happened. Davis only hit 196/.300/.404, resulting in a gargantuan drop in wOBA from the previous year of over 110 points. It was a baffling decline in performance. His .242 BABIP did not come anywhere close to explaining it.

The story with Davis is that he has always struggled with his mechanics. Ryan Parker, a master of hitting mechanics who used to write for Baseball Prospectus, discussed it in detail here (sadly, the images/gifs for that piece are no longer functioning). The Orioles did a great job in helping Davis.

The problem was that Davis could not reproduce his 2013 mechanics in 2014. Again, Parker discussed it in detail. In short, his 2014 struggles were the combination of his hands being overly busy during his swing and his oblique injury.

Davis bounced back big time in 2015 by hitting .262/.361/.562 with 47 home runs; that production led to him signing a seven-year $161 million deal with the Orioles. It was an extremely risky, ill-advised deal given Davis’s struggles with consistency, and it was highly doubtful that other teams would have offered anything close to that. The first year of the deal did not get off to a great start with a line of .221/.332/.459. The Orioles are paying for a lot better than a 111 wRC+.

Koji Uehara is now best remembered for his time with the Red Sox, especially getting the last out of the 2013 World Series — which, ironically, was against the team that beat the Rangers in the 2011 World Series. That year, his flyball tendencies did hurt the Rangers. He gave up five homers in 18 IP, and he could not have been worse in the playoffs as part of the Rangers team that came within one strike of winning the World Series.

Uehara’s time with the Rangers was quite good overall, though. He had a 2.50 RA9 and 3.02 FIP, and he struck out 33.2 percent of the batters he faced. What was most impressive was his minuscule two percent walk rate. I don’t know exactly what constitutes 80-grade control, but that’s definitely it. He recently signed a one-year deal with the Cubs, which is amazing since he will turn 42 at the start of the season.

The Tommy Hunter experiment did not work, to put it nicely. The Orioles gave him 31 starts over the course of a year, and he was terrible, putting up a 5.89 RA9 in the rotation. His career as a reliever has been much, much better. Starting in 2013, he moved to the bullpen full-time, posting a 3.28 RA9 with the Orioles until he was traded to the Cubs at the 2015 trade deadline. He then signed with Cleveland as a free agent in 2016 and was quite effective, but he spent too much time on the disabled list and got waived in late August after having missed almost two months. Coincidentally, the Orioles picked him up for the last month of the season. He is currently a free agent.

Let’s take a look at a summary of the results of the trade for the Orioles. I am focusing solely on what Uehara bought the team, so I am omitting Davis’s 2016 free-agent season.

Orioles Results

Remaining Control WAR Salary (M)
Remaining Control WAR Salary (M)
Chris Davis 4 18.4 $26.27
Tommy Hunter 4 3.3 $10.10
Total 8 21.7 $36.37
Salaries are approximated for partial seasons. All data are just from time spent on the Orioles.

That looks pretty awesome for less than 1.5 seasons of a reliever. The Rangers’ table is pretty simple.

Rangers Results

Remaining Control WAR Salary (M)
Remaining Control WAR Salary (M)
Koji Uehara 1 1.7 $5.00
Salaries are approximated for partial seasons. All data are just from time spent on the Rangers.

What hurts the most if you’re a Rangers fan is that the team’s first basemen combined for only 2.2 WAR from 2012-2015, per FanGraphs. In fact, first base is still a problem for Texas. To be fair, though, we have no way of knowing if Chris Davis would have ever improved had he stayed with the Rangers. What is most interesting is that the Rangers lost the division by one game in 2012. Could Davis have made a difference? It’s a great “what if.”

It will be very interesting to revisit this trade once Davis completes his current deal, because there is no way he ever signs with the Orioles for the amount he did had he not been traded there in the first place. If the contract turns out to be the disaster that many fear it could be, it could negate a lot of the value he brought during his rookie deal. At least his 3-WAR season in 2016 is not a bad start.

. . .

Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.