Tuesday September 16th, 2014

While the Orioles will soon celebrate their first division title in 17 years, ending their longest such drought since the franchise arrived in Baltimore in 1954, Chris Davis will be preparing to play instructional league ball against minor leaguers in a nearly empty ballpark in Sarasota, Fla. Last year, the thought of the Orioles playing without Davis would conjure a severely compromised team. Such is not the case this year. Put it this way: Davis is far worse off without the Orioles than the Orioles are without him.

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Minus Davis, Baltimore is still is a formidable postseason opponent. It still has a secure defense, platoon-neutral bullpen options and impressive roster depth, all of which help make the Orioles the best team in the American League in one-run games (31-20). Davis, however, faces an uncertain future because of twice testing positive for Adderall, a banned substance. The second infraction, which a club source said happened "a month or two ago," prompted MLB to suspend Davis for 25 games, which effectively puts him out of the Division Series and, if Baltimore advances, the League Championship Series.

I suspect Baltimore would welcome him back for the World Series if it gets that far, just as the Rangers brought back Nelson Cruz, after he served his 50-game Biogenesis suspension, for the wild-card tiebreaker game they lost to Tampa Bay last season. Like Cruz, now the Orioles' top slugger, Davis is well liked by his teammates, and even the threat of his bat off he bench would be an asset. But then what?

The Orioles made a brief run at signing Davis to a contract extension last winter, as they did with Manny Machado and Matt Wieters. Nothing happened with any of them. (The club has only two players signed through 2016: Pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez and centerfielder Adam Jones, the clubhouse rock who likes to tease his fellow teammates about passing up the security of a long-term deal). Coincidentally, all three of Davis, Machado and Wieters are out for the year with lessened bargaining power.

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Davis was 27 years old last winter and coming off a monster season with 53 home runs and 138 RBIs. Was it a breakout year or a fluke? The team believed it was real. A club source said the Orioles preferred to sign him to a five-year deal. If this sounds familiar, remember the breakout season of Jose Bautista in 2010. First, compare the breakout years of Bautista and Davis:

  age hr rbi avg/obp/slg ops
Bautista, 2010 29 54 124 .260/.378/.617 .995
Davis, 2013 27 53 138 .286/.370/.624 1.004

The Blue Jays signed Bautista to a five-year, $65 million extension. Davis, the younger player, was looking at a Bautista contract at minimum (though Toronto bought out four free-agent years from Bautista and the Orioles were looking at three free-agent years from Davis).

Now? Who knows the value of Davis? Bautista consolidated his breakout year in 2011 by winning a second straight home run title, with 43 homers, and increasing his OPS. Davis struggled mightily in his follow-up season this year, ending his regular season with a .196 average, .704 OPS, 26 home runs, 72 RBIs and 173 strikeouts. Only three players ever struck out more often while hitting worse than .200: Mark Reynolds, Carlos Pena and Rob Deer. Davis made $10.35 million this year.

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Back in 1991, Mark McGwire endured a miserable season that looked a lot like what Davis went through: .201 average, .714 OPS, 22 homers, 75 RBIs and 116 strikeouts. Eligible for arbitration, McGwire decided not to ask for a raise when he exchanged numbers with Oakland, and he settled for a $250,000 pay cut.

"I didn’t deserve a raise," McGwire explained.

Davis is eligible for arbitration this offseason and for free agency after 2015. It's unlikely Davis will offer to take a pay cut. Such humility is almost unheard of in pro sports. But that five-year offer? Goodbye. The problem is that between the Adderall and the down year, Davis is far from a sure thing. The advanced information and metrics used in today’s game began to catch up to Davis last year (his batting average dropped 70 points in the second half) and especially this year. Scouting reports and heat maps learned that he had trouble with fastballs in on his hands. And as shifts became more extreme and sophisticated, Davis' hits to the pull field dried up. Last year, he had 45 singles and doubles to rightfield. This year, facing more extreme shifts and more fastballs in on his hands, he had only 19. His batting average on balls in play to the pull field dropped from .395 to .181.

Davis hit .098 with two strikes, .114 against power pitchers and .178 against relievers. Guess what you have to hit in the postseason? Power pitchers with strikeout stuff, especially matchup relievers who are armed with even more extensive scouting reports. (In 22 previous career at-bats in the postseason, Davis has batted .208 without an extra-base hit.) That’s why the loss of Davis isn't the blow to Baltimore it first appeared to be.

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Several weeks ago, Davis told me, "The biggest difference is, last year, [pitchers] just showed me a fastball in off the plate and tried to get me out soft away. This year they’re coming in not for show but for strikes. [And] the defense is shifted around more and deeper. You look up and you see the second baseman playing deeper and almost near the line."

In a perfect world, Davis' lefthanded bat complements a Baltimore lineup that relies on the home run more than any other. Davis could always run into a mistake in October, but his deficiencies this year against better pitching can't be overlooked. And the heart of the order, while all righthanded, still does well against righthanded pitching, notably Cruz (.828 OPS) and Steve Pearce (.849).

Until Davis was suspended, only the Cubs and Rockies had fewer wins without a home run this year than the Orioles (13). Baltimore promptly notched its next three wins without hitting a ball out of the ballpark. The winning hits in those games came from Jimmy Paredes, Ryan Flaherty and Kelly Johnson, all of whom figure to pick up the at-bats that belonged to Davis.

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It’s been that kind of season for general manager Dan Duquette, who acquired 14 of his current 32 players within the past 11 months, and manager Buck Showalter, who uses his roster and bullpen as well as Bruce Bochy in San Francisco, making them heirs to Tony La Russa as dugout masters of roster management.

When Showalter spoke to his club Friday morning about Davis, he didn’t call a team meeting but simply brought it up first in the daily meeting with hitters and then in the daily meeting with pitchers. He wanted to de-emphasize the potential of the blow. Meanwhile, at least three teammates already had spoken with Davis. At least one of them expressed an angry "tough love" toward Davis. Another, when asked if Davis had been dumb or desperate by using Adderall, said he interpreted Davis' decision as a desperate "roll of the dice."

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Until Davis explains himself, there are too many questions to bring his future into focus. When was his first bust? Would he have been this desperate with the security of a long-term contract? Is there an addictive side to the drug's use that needs attention? Did he think he could beat the test? (He’s only the third major leaguer to be suspended for amphetamines this year.) If he were issued a Therapeutic Use Exemption years ago with Texas to use Adderall, why didn’t he re-apply for one this year?

We just don't know. What we do know, by looking at his month-by-month batting averages from last May through this August, is that Davis was sinking in quicksand: .364, .290, .211, .287, .216, .250, .209, .175, .167, .161. Desperate? Maybe. He would not be the first player to understand that there is only one force in Major League Baseball greater than the pressure to perform: The pressure to perform again when everybody is expecting it.

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