BALTIMORE — All winter, the Orioles made it clear that Trey Mancini was going to be at spring training as their primary first baseman, allowing Anthony Santander and Ryan Mountcastle to be full-time corner outfielders.
That means Chris Davis is either going to be an expensive bench bat or designated hitter, albeit one who has been one of the least productive hitters in baseball for three years running. He has every right to see out his contract and be paid what he was owed, even as he referred to himself in December as “one big lump that they’re kind of stuck with.”
But what if he wasn’t?
Davis has two years remaining on his seven-year, $161 million contract signed ahead of the 2016 season. He carries a $23 million annual salary, with $17 million in present-day pay and $6 million in deferrals. Teams have to put some of the deferred money aside as a good-faith gesture that the money will be there in future years, but it’s unclear how much.
For the sake of this exercise, we’ll say Davis costs the 2021 Orioles $20 million in present-day money, even if it might be less than that.
That represents a major chunk of the Orioles’ projected payroll, which FanGraphs’ Roster Resource has at $49.5 million for the current roster (with $10 million of Alex Cobb’s salary with the Los Angeles Angels also being paid by the Orioles).
They’re projected to lose nearly 100 games with the current group of players that includes a stable of young outfielders, promising pitchers John Means, Dean Kremer and Keegan Akin, and an uninspiring infield.
But if the Orioles still had the roster they have now, is it possible to make this Orioles team markedly better if that $20 million was invested elsewhere? What about future versions of the team?
Let’s say the Orioles have $20 million to spend in free agency that they wouldn’t otherwise spend for the 2021 and 2022 season, and then there are no restrictions beyond that. Players who declined the qualifying offer, and thus would cost the Orioles draft picks to sign them, aren’t worth considering. The Orioles aren’t going to set back their long-term plans for that.
Players would sign for as much as they already have this offseason with other clubs; the Orioles’ actual interest in those contracts in real life doesn’t matter. Neither does whether those players would want to sign for a team that’s likely two years away from trying to contend for a playoff spot again.
We’ll operate off FanGraphs’ projections for the team and players, which have the Orioles going 63-99 in 2021, and specifically their depth-chart projections for individual player projections. We’ll also use the free agent’s projected WAR with their signing team.
Davis is projected at -0.8 WAR in that measure, so let’s factor in the extra at-bats the projection could give more productive hitters and round up to give the Orioles a free win back to start them at 64-98 for these calculations.
And even though it’s not a like-for-like comparison to say a team adding hypothetical wins above replacement (WAR) will equal adding wins in the standings, this analysis points to a strong correlation, so it works here.
Here are a few ways the Orioles could theoretically have reallocated Chris Davis’ contract money for 2021, and how much better it would have actually made them:
— Upgrade the middle infield: Shortstop Andrelton Simmons ($10.5 million, 2.9 WAR), second baseman Cesar Hernandez ($5 million, 1.7 WAR), right-hander Matt Shoemaker ($2 million, 1.2 WAR), left-hander Rich Hill ($2.5 million, 1.0 WAR)
For an even $20 million, and all on one-year contracts, the Orioles could address two deficiencies here in meaningful ways in bringing in a strong middle infield and get a bit more upside out of their rotation depth than they might with their current crop of minor league free agents in Felix Hernandez, Matt Harvey and others.
FanGraphs’ Depth Chart projection has incumbent shortstop Freddy Galvis at 0.8 WAR for $1.5 million this year, and forecasts Jahmai Jones as getting more second base reps than Yolmer Sanchez, but those two combining for -0.1 WAR between them. It’s far more likely Jones isn’t up until later in the season, anyway, and Sanchez is at .3 WAR on his own, so more Sanchez probably means a better return from the position.
Simmons, one of the more elite defenders at shortstop, and Hernandez, a steady all-around second baseman with more offensive upside than Sanchez, would net the Orioles 3.9 WAR over their current middle infield for around $13 million more — a pretty good value.
The pitchers, Shoemaker and Hill, have injury and age risks associated with them but are projected to be worth one win apiece. The Orioles’ fourth and fifth starters on FanGraphs — Hernandez and Bruce Zimmermann — are projected at 0.6 WAR and 0.5 WAR, respectively. So, that nets an additional 1.1 WAR for about $3 million more.
In total, though, all that adds around five wins to the Orioles’ roster for a hypothetical projected record of 69-93. That’s not going to extend the season into October.
— Bridges to the future: Justin Turner ($17 million per year for two years, 2.9 WAR), catcher Mike Zunino ($3 million, 1.1 WAR)
Third base and catcher are two spots the Orioles have perfectly good players for where they are now but would take a short-term upgrade if they could. Rio Ruiz is projected to be worth 1.2 WAR in a full season, so signing Turner away from the World Series champion Dodgers would only net the Orioles 1.7 WAR for over $16 million. He could also provide some expensive cover for 2022, and maybe by 2023 the Orioles could be ready to stick someone like Gunnar Henderson at third.
Zunino, a former top pick himself, would be a bridge to Adley Rutschman and could give some advice on what it’s like to be a franchise’s catcher of the future. Pedro Severino (0.4 WAR) and Chance Sisco (0.3 WAR) still have youth on their side, but the Orioles could add a half win or so over $2 million from them if Zunino replaced one.
This scenario simply doesn’t add up. The Orioles would, at best be 2.5 wins better.
— Upgrade the rotation: Corey Kluber ($11 million, 2.6 WAR), Chris Archer ($6.5 million, 1.8 WAR), Alex Wood ($3 million, 1.6 WAR)
Trevor Bauer’s $34 million salary is disqualifying in this scenario, but there’s a way to remake the Orioles’ rotation for far less. Kluber is a former Cy Young Award winner who will have to prove he’s healthy but, at 2.7 projected WAR, would be by far the Orioles’ best starter.
This group, including Archer and Wood, would join John Means (2.0 WAR) and either Dean Kremer (1.0 WAR) or Keegan Akin (1.1 WAR) for a top-five that’s worth 9.1 WAR total. The net gain for those three signings would be around 3.5 WAR, but we’ll round up to four since whichever pitchers are bumped would improve both the Orioles’ rotation depth and long relief options when those will be at a premium in a long season.
Any contending team’s general manager would gladly take adding four wins in the offseason for a shade over $20 million. This particular team still would struggle to crack 70 wins, so it’s unclear whether that investment would be worth it.
— Bonus option: Give out some contract extensions
Davis’ contract gets blamed for the dismantling of the mid-2010s Orioles as they moved on from pretty much everyone but him over the course of their rebuild. Having an extra $20 million earmarked for major league payroll but not spent on him could make sure that’s not his legacy for another generation of players.
Trey Mancini is already scheduled to make $4.75 million, but to buy out a year of arbitration and delay the popular star’s free agency, maybe he could get a raise to delay free agency for a few years and sign a hypothetical deal that gives him $6 million this year and $8 million for the next two.
Perhaps the Orioles could buy out Ryan Mountcastle’s club control period with a 6-year, $24 million deal like slugger Evan White got in Seattle, and structure it so he maybe makes $2 million the next couple of years.
There are countless other players worth extending, like Means and Santander, and the Orioles could theoretically also use some of this money to sign Rutschman to a pre-debut extension.
Whatever they’d do in this scenario would probably be contracts that are more expensive in the future than in 2021, so it’s not as if they’d invest all $20 million immediately. They’d have to spread it out to make that money most effective, but that method would do a lot more to make a winner out of the Orioles at some point than throwing $20 million at free agents to make this team better for 2021.