With the passing of both Christmas and New Years, the baseball offseason has found its way into January. With baseball right around the corner, there is still a lot to be decided in terms of the free-agent market. Perhaps the biggest questions of all relate to Chris Davis. Notable for his presence as one of the best free agents available this offseason, Davis has reportedly already turned down an offer from his former team, the Baltimore Orioles, that exceeded $150 million. Following his no response, talks grew cold, with the Orioles creating some distance between themselves and the slugger.
As the season draws closer, the market for Chris Davis is still no clearer. Aside from the Orioles, no other team has made any serious offer for Davis, or even made their intentions known about possibly signing him for that matter. At this point, Davis seems to be in a state of limbo, with quite a bit of uncertainty surrounding his next contract. The Orioles have already added 1B/OF/DH Mark Trumbo, who will somewhat lessen the blow if Davis does leave. However, Trumbo is nowhere close to Davis as an all-around player, meaning the Orioles still would be worse off. Add to that the several other weaknesses the Orioles have around the diamond, and it seems the team may be in a tricky spot at this point.
Although it appears the Orioles may be in a tough spot, with Chris Davis demanding a huge payday, along with the departure of Wei-Yin Chen, they do have a possible solution right in front of them. Based on their offer to Davis, which was in the $20-plus million range as an average annual value, the Orioles DO have some money to spend. It remains to be seen whether the Orioles will want to use that money elsewhere, but the fact is that it is there. The front office has tipped its hand, and at this point, can Duquette and Co. really cry poor to the fans when there are so many impact bats available?
So here’s the proposal, and it may sound a little crazy. Rather than throw that money at Chris Davis, the Orioles could instead use all, or at least some, of that money and sign one of the three remaining big time outfielders left on the free-agent market. It doesn’t matter which one, whether it’s Justin Upton, Yoenis Cespedes, or Alex Gordon, all three will meet the Orioles outfield need, and at a lesser price than what Davis is wanting. However, while solving the Orioles need for a better starting outfield, this still leaves the team with a hole at first base for 2016. Once again no offense to Mark Trumbo, but he needs some help as part of a 1B/DH timeshare/platoon going forward.
Enter Pedro Alvarez. Yes, that Pedro Alvarez. Coming off an abysmal 2015 season, and an unceremonious exit from his long time Pittsburgh home, Alvarez is available on the free-agent market, likely for cheap. Obviously I will be the first one to say that Alvarez is nowhere near the player Chris Davis is on any level, with that being said, Alvarez will come at a much cheaper price, and will allow the Orioles to get more bang for their buck at not only first base, but more importantly in the outfield with a potential upgrade there.
To approximate what the difference in value would be between those two sluggers, I compared the last four years (2012-2015) of both player’s careers below. The first tables will show both player’s typical offensive statistics, such as AVG/OBP/SLG, home runs, walks, strikeouts and so. The second table includes WAR values, including both offensive and defensive WAR calculations, as well as both player’s salaries.
I know what you are thinking, based on these numbers it is pretty clear who the better player is in this comparison. For a more measured comparison, let’s take just the last two seasons and take a closer look. So comparing just 2014, both players played in around the same number of games, around 120, with Davis garnering almost 100 more plate appearances in total. Both players got around the same number of hits, with Davis getting more hits, doubles, home runs and RBIs, but not by an overwhelming margin.
For our purposes, the interesting comparison is in the remainder of the numbers. Davis not only struck out 60 times more than Alvarez but slashed only .196/.300/.404 to Alvarez’s .231/.312/.405. Obviously neither player was great by any stretch of the imagination, but both players put up somewhat similar numbers in sum.
However, when we get to 2015, or even look back at 2013, there is a night and day difference between the two sluggers. Both played in almost every game, with Davis playing in 160 and garnering almost 200 more plate appearances than Alvarez. Davis once again surpassed Alvarez in almost every offensive category, including hits, runs, RBIs, home runs, walks and strikeouts, all while hitting for a higher average, getting on base more often, as well as hitting for a higher slugging percentage. In all facets of the game, Davis was a better player than Alvarez, as demonstrated by the WAR difference of 5.2 to 0.1 for 2015.
With that in mind, let’s dig a little deeper into those WAR numbers over the last several years and the overall financial value of each player. Let’s once again start in 2014. Davis produced only 1.8 WAR while making a salary of $10.35 million, which translates to $5.75 million per WAR, a bargain based on the $7-8 million per one WAR valuation. By comparison, Alvarez produced 0.7 WAR in that same season, for the price of $4.25 million, which translates to around $5-6 million per WAR, still a bargain by that same valuation. Therefore in 2014, both teams were paying around the same amount for similar value, with one team paying more for more value with the other paying slightly less for less value.
While this comparison makes the two look like somewhat similar players, 2015 is a whole different story for both. Davis produced at a 5.2 WAR clip at a salary of $12 million, good for a value of 2.30 million for 1 WAR, well below the fair market valuation. Alvarez on the other hand produced only 0.1 WAR, while making a salary of $5.75 million, making his value for 1 WAR approximately $50-plus million. Ouch, that’s expensive.
So at this point my point isn’t really being proven is it? However, it can still be saved. Below is the projections for the 2016 season for both players based on their past performance.
While the difference between the two players was quite significant in 2015, that gap appears to be lessened in 2016. Davis will obviously produce more than Alvarez overall, but perhaps not for the best overall value upon closer comparison. To better understand this, the projected WAR numbers from Fangraphs Steamer projections are compared below.
Coming off a 5-plus WAR season, Davis is projected for only 2.4 WAR according to the Steamer Projections. The offensive numbers are more or less similar to the ones above, with some significant regression for Davis overall. By comparison, Alvarez is projected for a 0.8 WAR season, coming off a season in which he provided a minuscule 0.1 WAR. One caveat to this comparison is the projections only have Alvarez playing just under 100 games, meaning we can extrapolate his numbers to be between 1.3-1.6 WAR for a whole season of play, similar to what Davis is projected for.
With next year’s projections in mind, salary becomes critical. If Davis does sign with the Orioles, or really with any team, for a salary in the $150 million range, he will be making upwards of $20-25 million per year over the next six or seven years. If we pick the arbitrary value of $22 million per year, based on the reported seven year $150 million contract he turned down from Baltimore, that puts Davis at approximately $9.16 million per WAR, slightly more expensive than the $7-8 million per WAR valuation, but still not a bad value.
By comparison, Alvarez, who was projected to make around $9 or 10 million in arbitration with the Pirates, will probably make somewhere in the neighborhood of that $7-8 million figure, likely on only a one or two year commitment. That would mean Alvarez’s value would be at about the same spot as Davis’, using the conservative 0.8 estimate mentioned above. If we use the more realistic 1.3-1.6 WAR estimate, that makes Alvarez a better value next year than Davis, based solely on the projection systems.
This is where we get into the crux of the argument. Rather than spend $150 million on one player this offseason in Chris Davis, the Orioles can spend $7 to 8 million on Pedro Alvarez, and spread the rest of that $142 million around. At least for next year, signing Alvarez over Davis gives the Orioles $15-20 million more to spend elsewhere on the roster. Signing either Alex Gordon or Yoenis Cespedes would probably take up more than that amount on an annual average value, but the Orioles as a team would get a higher overall boost from one of those two players and Alvarez than they would from just Davis.
Beyond that, Davis looks like a disaster waiting to happen given the poor aging that goes along with strong power skills, meaning Davis could revert back to his 2014 form sooner rather than later, making any contract he signs a potential liability. Obviously Gordon or Cespedes could carry similar risk, although both players project for better value next year than Davis, at a lesser price. Another possibility entirely is signing one of the two or three lesser free agent outfielders, such as Denard Span, Dexter Fowler or Gerardo Parra, and using whatever money was saved for pitching upgrades, such as mid-tier options like Yovani Gallardo or Ian Kennedy.
Based on all this evaluation, the Baltimore Orioles should not sign Chris Davis to a long-term contract. The team would be much better off using the money they would be paying Davis to sign a player like Pedro Alvarez on a short-term commitment, while signing a bigger time outfield upgrade such as Yoenis Cespedes or Alex Gordon. This way the Orioles can mitigate some of the loss of Davis at first base by improving on their outfield. This could also leave enough money for the team to pursue pitching upgrades, which is something the Orioles desperately need. For a team with lots of question marks, signing Chris Davis to a long term contract would be just another one.