Why Chris Davis' Contract With Baltimore Is A Bit Scary

The Orioles have re-signed their slugging first baseman, but is the contract worth it?

Every July 1, the family and friends of former Major League All-Star Bobby Bonilla celebrate "Bobby Bonilla Day."

No, this is not an honorary event thrown by the city in which Bonilla lives. It's not some community gathering in which he receives the "key to the city" or something like that.

On the first day of July, every year, the New York Mets make a payment of almost $1.2 million dollars to Bonilla, a player who hasn't played for them since 1999. And until the year 2035, Bonilla will continue to receive that check, as part of a contract he signed with the team more than a decade and a half ago.

Folks, get ready for "Chris Davis Day."

If there was any team that needed to take the risk of signing Davis to a massive, long-term deal, it was the Baltimore Orioles. And over the weekend, they did just that, agreeing on a seven-year, $161 million contract with last year's home run champion.

It's an interesting deal to say the least. Davis will earn $17 million a year starting next year through the year 2022. After that, he'll get annual payments of $3.5 million from 2023 through 2032 and then $1.4 million a year from 2033 through 2037. And while there is no reported interest in the deferrals, Baltimore will still be paying Davis about a million and a half dollars every year until he turns 51 years old.

Is It Worth It?

A few weeks ago, I wrote about why Chris Davis was the scariest signing of the offseason. Yes, he was a beast in 2015. There is no question.

He slashed .262/.361/.562, scored 100 runs, knocked in 117, had a .390 weighted on base average (wOBA), a weighted runs created (wRC+) of 147 (100 is a league-average run producer), an fWAR of 5.6, and a nERD of 3.13 that was eighth-best in baseball last year. That nERD score means a lineup full of Davises would score 3.13 runs a game more than a lineup of league average players.

That 5.6 fWAR was fourth-best among first basemen last year, and that .390 wOBA was ninth-best. And since 2012, his 159 homers are more than any other baseball player on the planet. Undoubtedly, he was the best pure power hitter on the market.

So what's so scary about that?

A few things.

First, when Davis is bad, he's really bad. In 2014, coming off a season in which he smoked a league-leading 53 homers and 138 RBI, finishing third in the AL MVP vote with a 7.0 fWAR, he hit .196/.300/.404 with 26 homers and 72 RBI, posting a wRC+ of 94 and just a 0.8 fWAR. 

Defensive shifts ate him up and his HR/FB rate fell. He was also suspended for 25 games at the end of that year for illegal usage of Adderall.

Second, he's a strikeout waiting to happen. Last year, he led the American League with 208 K's and has struck out at least 169 times in each of his last four seasons.

When he's hitting 40-plus homers a year, you can live with that. But once that production drops, those strikeouts become far less tolerable.

He's also a big-bodied first baseman, and those types of frames tend to have a hard time holding up over time. And the O's will be paying him $17 million a season through his age-37 season.

That could get ugly sooner rather than later.

The player Davis reminds me of most is Ryan Howard. In Howard's age 26 through 29 seasons, he led the National League in homers twice, piling up totals of 58, 47, 48 and 45, and his OPS was 1.084, .976, .881 and .931. He was one of the most dominant power hitters in the game.

Next year, Davis will be 30. In Howard's age-30 season, he was still productive but trailed off noticeably, hitting .276/.353/.505 with 31 homers and 108 RBI. In his age 31 season, he hit .253/.346/.488 with 33 dingers and 116 RBI. 

But we all know what happened after that. Starting with his age-32 season (2012), he has hit no more than 23 homers in a season since then, has never slugged higher than .465, and only once has put up an fWAR above a replacement level player.

I can see the same trajectory with Davis.

Is It Right for Baltimore?

Of course, you can understand why Baltimore made this move.

They still believe they can compete for the American League East and desperately needed Davis' left-handed power to balance a lineup that had become very right-handed. With Adam Jones, Manny Machado, Mark Trumbo, and J.J. Hardy expected to be in the middle of the order, they needed Davis' power from the left side. 

But did it cost them too much? And will be Davis be able to hold off the same type of deterioration that turned Howard's 30s into a disaster?

The one big difference is that, unlike Howard in the National League, the Orioles can put Davis at DH when he's no longer able to play defensively. 

Perhaps Davis will age like David Ortiz, who is still one of the most productive designated hitters and is playing into his late 30s. 

But it's the reason Davis, for me, was the riskiest signing of this offseason.