Learning to Love the Chris Davis Contract

Two players, Chris Davis and Justin Upton, made big news this week with massive, long-term contracts. Davis re-signed with the Baltimore Orioles for seven years and $161 million while Upton put pen to paper with the Detroit Tigers for six years and $132.75 million. On an annual basis, Davis will make $23 million; Upton $22.125 million. Davis, however, will make only $17 million per year for the first seven years of his new contract. Davis essentially gave the Orioles an interest-free loan of $42 million that will be paid out from 2023 to 2037. Cue the Bobby Bonilla jokes, but good luck getting a bank on any planet to give you $42 million with no interest. The world would save a lot of money on mortgages if that were the case.

Since the news of the Davis signing broke early Saturday morning, Orioles fans have been unsure exactly how to feel about the contract. On one hand, you have to be excited that the team finally spent big money on a free agent. Davis is the first nine-figure man in club history. Showing a willingness to open the checkbook for a homegrown (that’s how Davis should be viewed) star should bode well when the time comes to persuade Manny Machado to become the next Hall of Fame infielder to spend his entire career wearing orange and black. On the flip side — $161 million is a lot of money to pay a guy who strikes out over 200 times per season. Davis is going to be miserable when he’s playing out the final two years of this contract! The Orioles bid against themselves! This is a bad contract.

Clearly there are two sides to every argument with every free agent. That’s why it’s taken so long for Davis, Upton, and Yoenis Cespedes to sign long-term deals. The Orioles and their loyal backers really won’t know how this contract will look five, six, seven years down the road until the pages of the calendar turns. The time machine is still science fiction. Davis could keep hitting 50 homers a season or he could turn into this generation’s Dave Kingman. Who knows? For now all that’s left to do is plug numbers into fancy regression models and bemoan the money that the Orioles may have wasted.

For the Orioles fans who are already happy about re-signing Chris Davis, feel free to stop reading now. I don’t have to attempt to win you back to Team Crush. If you’re one of the Camdenites who would have preferred Upton or Cespedes, bear with me. For starters, over the past four seasons, Davis has posted an OPS+ of 136. Upton and Cespedes have identical OPS+ values of 122 since 2012. Glossing over the intricacies of OPS+, Davis has essentially been fourteen-percent better than both outfielders over the past four seasons. His OPS+ would completely blow Upton and Cespedes out of the water if you are willing to overlook whatever messed-up crazy things were going on between Davis’s ears in 2014. Even while batting .196 with 173 strikeouts in 127 games, Davis still had an OBP only three points lower than Cespedes. Upton has never and will never carry a lineup, but will now be paid as if he can.

If those reasons aren’t enough to sway you back to Team Davis, let’s just look at the contract’s structure. For the next seven years, Davis will affect the construction of the 25-man roster for the Baltimore Orioles. He will be paid $17 million per year during those seasons. That is a bargain by today’s standards. From 2023 to 2032, Davis will be paid $3.5 million annually. Finally, from 2033 to 2037, Davis will cash checks for $1.4 million annually. I’m no medical expert, but 86-year-old Peter Angelos will not be the one writing those checks. Buck Showalter will no longer be managing the team, and Dan Duquette will likely have found a way to force his way out of town for a more lucrative job. The new ownership group may actually be willing to swap him for a draft pick.

While you could argue that my view is extremely short-sighted, the Orioles will not be affected by having to pay Davis 15 years after he takes his final swings. The players who could make up the Orioles 15 years from now are likely still working on mastering the entire alphabet and counting to 100. Revenues will keep going up and up and up as baseball expands globally. That number will become a line item on the budget of a successful franchise. Raise the price of hot dogs by 25 cents if you must, inflation (something the Orioles don’t even have to worry about with the Davis payments!) will probably do that anyway. The only reason Bonilla’s payouts have become a running joke is because the Mets were taken to the cleaners by a Ponzi schemer. I don’t see that happening in Baltimore. When whoever is running the Orioles in 2030 has to plan out his roster for the upcoming season, the money going to Davis will not affect the decision-making process.

Right here, right now, the decision to re-sign Chris Davis is a good one for the Baltimore Orioles. It certainly cannot be the last big move made this offseason, but it is a start. The Orioles bring back the best left-handed slugger in baseball in a way that will not tie their hands financially over the next few years. The window of contention remains open, precarious as it may be, thanks to the presence of a left-handed power bat smack dab in the middle.

So for now, love the Chris Davis contract, cross your fingers, and hope for a starting pitcher.

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