At Orioles’ spring training so far, youth has been the star of the show. Prospects such as Yusniel Diaz, Austin Hays and Ryan Mountcastle have flashed their potential, while Rule 5 picks Richie Martin and Drew Jackson are generating buzz.
Amid the youth movement, though, one veteran — Chris Davis — has been a focal point. Plenty of questions surround the Orioles’ longest tenured player, who is coming off a nightmarish 2018 season in which he batted .168, the lowest average in MLB history.
Davis, who is sidelined because of a sore hip, was off to a sluggish start in Grapefruit League play before the injury, going 1-for-12 with seven strikeouts.
The Orioles will give Davis more time to find his footing. Still, some Oriole fans are already grumbling for the club to simply cut ties with the embattled slugger, even though they’d still owe him the $110 million remaining on his contract.
But is it realistic to expect the club to eat that much dead money? Only a handful of times has a major league club jettisoned a player — and paid his remaining salary — with more than one season left on his contract (not including players whose careers ended because of injury, including Prince Fielder and David Wright).
Let’s look at the five most expensive dead-money contracts in MLB history. How does Davis’ situation compare?
Released June 13, 2016 by Los Angeles Dodgers
Remaining salary eaten: $34 million
Crawford, a four-time All-Star outfielder for Tampa Bay, was long removed from his best years by the time he was given his walking papers in 2016. After signing a seven-year, $142 million contract with the Boston Red Sox in December 2010, Crawford’s speed almost immediately dried up, transforming him from a speedy, dynamic spark plug into a lumbering, defensively challenged albatross. Crawford, who’d had seven seasons of 45 or more steals with the Rays, stole only 71 for the remainder of his career.
The Dodgers bailed the Red Sox out of Crawford’s onerous contract in just its second year, acquiring Crawford along with first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and veteran righty Josh Beckett (and their considerable salaries) in a blockbuster trade in 2012. By 2016, though, the Dodgers had little use for an injury-plagued Crawford amidst a young outfield that included Joc Pederson, 24, and Yasiel Puig, 25. The Dodgers released the 34-year-old Crawford in July, eating about $12.7 million of his remaining 2016 salary and his entire $21 million for 2017. It was the end of his baseball career.
Released Dec. 11, 2018 by Toronto Blue Jays
Remaining salary eaten: $38 million
It’s been three months since the rebuilding Blue Jays parted ways with a player who used to be considered one of the best in baseball. Tulowitzki, during his Colorado Rockies’ days, was a five-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glover who thrice finished in the top 10 of the National League Most Valuable Player vote. In November 2010, the Rockies locked up Tulowitzki to a 10-year, $158 million extension that was meant to keep him in Colorado his whole career.
It wasn’t to be. By 2015, with the Rockies freefalling toward their fifth straight losing season, they made Tulowitzki available on the trade market. The contending Blue Jays eagerly snapped him up that July, happy to add arguably the best all-around shortstop in the game for the pennant race even for the somewhat exorbitant price tag.
The Jays won the AL East that season, but Tulowitzki put up mediocre numbers down the stretch and in parts of two seasons that followed. He was limited to 66 games last year after undergoing surgery on both heels in April. The Jays, wanting to make room for their young infield prospects, decided they’d be better off without Tulowitzki, eating his $20 million salary for 2019, $14 million for 2020 and a $4 million buyout for 2021.
Tulowitzki signed with the New York Yankees for the league minimum this January. He’s expected to be their starting shortstop while Didi Gregorius recovers from 2018 Tommy John surgery.
Released June 23, 2016 by Rockies
Remaining salary eaten: $39 million
So, how did the opposite side of that Tulowitzki trade turn out? Not great, actually. The other major league piece in that deal was Reyes, whom the Blue Jays sent to the Rockies to replace Tulowitzki at shortstop. Ultimately, the Rockies paid an almost identical amount of money for Reyes to go away as the Blue Jays did for Tulowitzki to do the same.
The Rockies were the third team to get stuck with Reyes’ bloated contract, a six-year, $106 million pact that he originally signed with the Miami Marlins before the 2012 season. After just one year, the Marlins — in typical Marlins fashion — traded away a slew of veterans in a fire sale, including Reyes to Toronto. Three years later, he was on the move again in the Tulowitzki trade, and Reyes struggled in Colorado for the remainder of the 2015 season.
In 2016, MLB suspended Reyes 51 games after he was arrested for a domestic violence incident against his wife the previous October. He never played another game for the Rockies, who released him in June. They owed him the remainder of his 2016 salary (about $13.3 million) plus $21.5 million for 2017 and a $4 million buyout for 2018. Reyes rejoined his original team, the New York Mets, from 2016 through 2018.
Released July 19, 2017 by Red Sox
Remaining salary eaten: $48 million
Less than a month after catching the final out of the 2014 World Series for the San Francisco Giants, Sandoval scored a hefty payday with Boston in free agency: five years, $95 million. It wasn’t long before he became the poster child for expensive contracts gone horribly wrong. Sandoval was a dud with the Red Sox from the get-go, amassing career worsts in nearly every offensive category in his debut season in 2015 while facing criticism about his lack of conditioning. The following year, he played just three games before undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery.
Sandoval returned to the starting third base job in 2017, but it lasted only about a month before the Sox pulled the plug. Sandoval was batting just .212 with four homers in 32 games when the Red Sox cut their losses and designated him for assignment. Sandoval has since returned to his first home, San Francisco, where the popular “Kung Fu Panda” was a two-time All-Star and three-time World Series champion.
The Sox will be paying Sandoval a while longer. They owe him $18 million in 2019 and a $5 million buyout for 2020, adding to the $25 million or so that they’ve already paid him since his release. Swallowing Sandoval’s contract, though, hasn’t prevented the defending champion Red Sox from finding success. It’s much easier to overcome a dead weight on the payroll when you have a talented roster — and deep pockets.
Traded April 27, 2015 by Los Angeles Angels to Texas Rangers
Remaining salary eaten by Angels: $73.5 million
When the Angels inked Hamilton to a five-year, $125 million deal in December 2012, they likely knew the deal was fraught with risk. Hamilton was already 31 years old, and he spoke openly about his previous battles with substance abuse, which had led to multiple failed drug tests and MLB-issued suspensions. Still, after Hamilton got clean and worked his way back into professional baseball, his numbers on the field couldn’t be denied. When the Angels signed him, he’d posted five straight All-Star seasons for the Rangers, including a 2010 campaign in which he won the AL MVP award with a league-leading .359 average and 1.044 OPS.
The Angels’ gamble backfired badly. Hamilton played just one full season with the club, 2013, in which his stats paled in comparison to his Rangers’ years. He missed half the 2014 season with an injured thumb, and finished the year by going 0-for-13 in the Angels’ Division Series loss to the Kansas City Royals. Those were his final at-bats in an Angels’ uniform.
In February 2015, Hamilton notified MLB that he had suffered a relapse in his sobriety. The Angels’ brass bristled, especially when an arbitrator ruled that Hamilton hadn’t violated the rules of his treatment program and would not face a suspension. The Angels were willing to eat nearly all of Hamilton’s contract simply to get him off the team.
In April, they agreed to trade him back to the Rangers. Texas picked up only about $7 million of Hamilton’s remaining salary; the Angels absorbed the remaining $73.5 million. Hamilton slogged through one injury-plagued season with the Rangers before knee problems ended his career.
That brings us back to Davis and his remaining $110 million. If the Orioles were to release Davis at any point this season and absorb his remaining salary, they’d be paying an unprecedented amount of money in MLB history for a player not on their team.
That’s assuming, of course, that the Orioles can’t find another team to take on any part of Davis’ contract. It seems like a safe assumption. Davis’ historically bad 2018 season has likely scared off any possible trade partners, even if the Orioles were to foot most of the bill.
At this point, the remaining $110 million is a sunk cost. The Orioles are going to be paying Davis his full salary, one way or the other, barring an unexpected retirement. So the Orioles’ new decision makers are faced with one key question: is the team better off with Davis on the roster or without him? The money is irrelevant.
It’s understandable that the Orioles’ analytics-minded front office wants to get fresh eyes on Davis and try everything possible to wring at least a little bit of value out of that contract. Davis, for his part, has said he’s amenable to suggestions from executive vice president Mike Elias and his staff, and made some adjustments during the offseason.
It remains to be seen just how long a leash the Orioles will give Davis, though, if he fails to show noticeable improvement in 2019. Sooner or later, the club could face the difficult prospect of swallowing a record amount of salary for Davis not to be an Oriole.