It’s been a long time since Chris Davis was considered a good baseball player. You have to go back to 2017 to find his last non-disastrous season, when both FanGraphs and Baseball Reference listed his Wins Above Replacement total at exactly 0.0. His last useful season came in 2016 (113 wRC+, 2.9 fWAR), which just so happened to be the first year of his massive seven-year, $161 million contract. Yes, it was signed in 2016, and yes, it only feels like it happened a lifetime ago.
There’s no reason to wade through Davis’ appalling 2018 and 2019 numbers once again. In 2018, he put up one of the very worst offensive seasons in baseball history. Last season, Davis was better only in the sense that it would have been virtually impossible for him to be worse. He stepped to the plate about two-thirds as much as he did in 2018, but to his credit, he made a marginal improvement. Still, he tied for the fifth-worst fWAR among position players.
Since general manager Mike Elias joined the Orioles, he’s been consistent in his messaging that Davis isn’t going anywhere — yet. He’s said nice things about Davis. O’s manager Brandon Hyde has also said nice things about Davis, and he continues to do so even after Davis had to be restrained last August from going after Hyde in the O’s dugout.
Davis has also been consistent in acknowledging for years now that what he’s doing isn’t good enough. After the last game of the 2017 season, he said: “[This season has] been extremely frustrating for a number of reasons, but one of the main reasons being that I just feel like there were so many nights out there when I was just a name in the lineup. I didn’t feel like I had contributed. … I look at the numbers now and the year as a whole and I feel like I’m a better player than that and I feel like these guys deserve a better product than what I’ve been giving them. If you want to call it a chip on my shoulder or motivated or whatever, I definitely have some things I’m looking forward to working on.”
Davis has given plenty of interviews during his extended struggles, and many of them are difficult to read or listen to because there’s nothing he could say that would make much of a difference. What matters is that he hasn’t come close to producing on the field since J.J. Hardy, Hyun Soo Kim, Matt Wieters and Nolan Reimold were regulars in the Orioles’ lineup.
Still, a few things stood out from Davis’ comments earlier this week after arriving at O’s spring training. First, he said he added 25 pounds to “[get his] strength up and [be] in a better physical position” and trained with former Oriole (and Davis’ friend) Craig Gentry. He also again rejected the notion that he needed to overhaul his swing or make any drastic changes. And most surprising to some, over the offseason he discussed with his wife the possibility of quitting baseball.
In a sense, this is more of the same. Davis reportedly considered walking away from baseball in 2018. He’s also only been willing to do what he’s comfortable with during his rapid decline, refusing to turn over every stone hoping that something, anything works.
It’s one of the reasons that Jim Palmer called out Davis nearly two years ago. Davis recently admitted that he’s “not going to crouch down in [his] legs, [he’s] not going to spread out and hit like Albert Pujols.” It has to be on his terms. That’s his right, but it’s telling that after Palmer criticized him, Davis trolled Palmer by changing his batting stance for a single game. And before his first batting practice session this week, Davis “crouched all the way down with the bat over his head, jokingly demonstrating all the stance and swing changes he decided not to make in the offseason.” This is all so very funny, you see, except when it’s not.
There are things I’d like to see Davis try. Maybe an even more aggressive approach. Perhaps being more open to bunting against the shift. But maybe nothing would matter anyway; he’s a first baseman who is about to turn 34 and whose best days are long behind him. He’s been searching for answers for years. He most likely knows what his issues are and that he can’t fix them, whether he’d ever admit it or not.
The Orioles are publicly supportive of him, because why wouldn’t they be? Taking a combative stance with Davis would accomplish nothing. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, and Hyde wasn’t able to completely hide some of his frustrations last year. But at the same time, the makeup of the O’s roster is changing. Trey Mancini is the team’s de facto leader and best player, and there’s no question he shouldn’t be a full-time outfielder. Renato Núñez may only be a designated hitter, but he does something Davis used to do: hit for power. And Ryan Mountcastle will make his major-league debut in 2020, and he won’t be promoted to sit on the bench.
It’s one thing for Davis to stick around, even in a reduced role, when he isn’t blocking anyone. But even right now, he’s stopping Mancini from playing full time at his best position. Maybe that affects Mancini’s trade value somewhat, but more importantly, it’s not as enjoyable to watch. And when it comes to Mountcastle, under no circumstances should Davis take any playing time away from him.
The Orioles must see that the writing is on the wall. This charade can’t continue for three more seasons. Davis has said more than once that he’s contemplated retirement; there’s no way this could be fun for him, or for anyone. As the O’s roster keeps evolving, the words from Elias and Hyde about Davis will matter less and less, and the focus will remain on why the club hasn’t taken action. If the Orioles are waiting for Mountcastle’s promotion to do something, that would at least be acceptable. But if they aren’t … really, what will they be waiting for?
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