As Pat discussed last week, Nelson Cruz is headed for free agency and will be seeking a multiyear deal. If Cruz does not accept the Orioles' expected qualifying offer and/or the two sides do not reach an agreement on a contract extension, the O's will have to find a replacement for arguably their best hitter from 2014. (Steve Pearce's slash line and advanced numbers were clearly better, but Cruz also finished with 300 more plate appearances. That wasn't Pearce's fault, but it still matters.)
There's a player on the O's roster who won't be splitting his time between a corner outfield spot and designated hitter, so he won't be filling Cruz's shoes. But he has similar offensive skills, is below average defensively, is coming off a suspension for using a (mostly) banned substance, and will be working on a one-year contract (if the O's tender him one). That player, of course, is Chris Davis.
Jon Shepherd noted the similarities between Cruz's 2014 and Davis's 2015 situation earlier this month. The Orioles are going to be looking for offensive production, and it doesn't matter where it comes from. So let's get this out of the way: The O's should bring Davis back for his third and final arbitration-eligible season. Davis avoided arbitration last year by accepting a $10.35 million offer. But he took a major step back offensively from his outstanding 2013 season, which cost him at least a few million dollars. If the O's bring him back, he'll probably be looking at a 2015 salary of around $12 million. That's still a lot of money, sure, but it's also for a single season. Cruz had red flags of his own, and the O's were able to bring him in for only $8 million (plus incentives) -- also for just one season. One-year deals are team friendly and minimize risk. Teams having the qualifying offer in their back pocket is also an interesting wrinkle.
Cruz has never had a full offensive season (500-600+ plate appearances) quite as bad as Davis's 2014 (94 wRC+ in 525 PA). Cruz came close in 2012, with a wRC+ of 106 in 642 PA. But overall, they have been similar offensively throughout their careers:
Nelson Cruz: 3,860 PA, .268/.328/.501, 118 wRC+
Chris Davis: 2,842 PA, .253/.322/.493, 115 wRC+
Davis walks slightly more (8.4 BB% to 7.9%) but also strikes out a lot more (31 K% to 22%). They are not on-base machines; they make up for that by hitting for power. Cruz has been slightly better over a longer period of time. But Davis is also six years younger. Age doesn't matter quite as much in a one-year situation, but Davis, who will turn 29 in March, is a pretty good bet to have a rebound season now that he's fully recovered from an oblique injury he suffered in April. He will probably never be as good as he was in 2013, but that doesn't mean he suddenly lost the ability to be an offensive weapon.
Davis had a terrible, perplexing 2014 season. He walked more than he ever had, yet he struck out the most since 2009. His 24.6 line drive percentage was his highest since 2011, but his .242 BABIP was the lowest of his career. Previously, in a season in which he received more than 137 plate appearances -- all but 2010 -- his BABIP had never been below .324. And he chased fewer pitches outside the strikezone than ever before (31.6 O-Swing%), but he also swung at about 5% fewer pitches than in 2013 and made less contact on pitches both inside and outside the zone. His HR/FB rate also dropped off from an amazing though unsustainable 29.6% in 2013 to 22.6% in 2014 (almost exactly his career average).
Davis's oblique injury very well may have been a nagging issue for him throughout the year. And opposing teams continue to utilize defensive shifts against him more each season, which is certainly affecting his numbers as more of his ground balls and line drives to the right side of the field get swallowed up. But the real concern for Davis is something that Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs noted in August:
[I]n 2013, Davis was 1.7 runs better than average per 100 fast pitches. He was 3.1 runs better than average per 100 offspeed pitches. Those are extraordinary marks, if you consider how many pitches a guy tends to see each season. You can see how Davis took a step forward in 2012 — he shortened up his swing a bit and made himself better able to handle the heat. The next year, Davis carried over his improvements, and also beat the living crap out of offspeed pitches. He was never bad against the slower stuff, but last season he feasted. This year, it’s half of a completely different story. Davis has been just about the same guy against fastballs. Yet against non-fastballs, he’s had all kinds of problems, to the tune of a decline of about five runs per 100 pitches.Opposing pitchers likely believe they've identified a weakness in Davis's approach, and he's going to have to prove he can deal with non-fastballs. Cruz, who feasts on fastballs even more than Davis, has previously dealt with pitchers trying to throw him more offspeed pitches. He's able to work around them and get fastballs that he's able to handle and hit out of the ballpark.
Quick and easy: Davis can still handle a fastball. He’s seeing fewer of them, though, as he’s getting pitched more carefully, and he’s been a mess against the rest of everyone’s repertoire.
But what if Davis doesn't adjust? Well, then the O's can let him walk after the season. And what if he's good? Then they can extend him the qualifying offer or work out some type of fair contract extension -- though paying top dollar for an aging first baseman is not an optimal strategy (e.g., Ryan Howard, Mark Teixeira, Albert Pujols, etc.). Still, that would be a good problem to have, and it would mean Davis took a big step forward after a regrettable 2014.
Photo via Keith Allison