What Could Have Been: Chris Davis, Mariner

 There’s been plenty of buzz surrounding the Baltimore Orioles the last several weeks as they’ve now clinched the American League East division for the first time since 1997, but recently chatter has turned towards slugger Chris Davis who was suspended for 25 games after a second positive test for Adderal. Davis has struggled to replicate his breakout 2013 season, but he still represents a key component of the Orioles’ batting order. Former Seattle Mariners special assistant to the general manager and current FanGraphs writer Tony Blengino attempted to determine what exactly went wrong for Davis in 2014 and in doing so left an interesting note from back when Davis was Texas Rangers property.

“[Talking about 2009-11] During this period, I worked for the Seattle Mariners, and we had an opportunity to acquire Davis as part of the Cliff Lee deal. We may even have been able to acquire him in addition to Justin Smoak, but other players were instead added to the deal. In 2012, Davis finally experienced his major league breakthrough, but even that was nothing compared to his massive 2013 campaign.

As you may recall, the Mariners traded Cliff Lee to the Rangers on July 9, 2010 in exchange for Smoak, Blake Beavan, Matthew Lawson, and Josh Lueke. Texas also acquired reliever Mark Lowe and cash in the deal that took place seemingly moments after Lee was supposed to be heading to the Bronx in a deal for current Mariner Jesus Montero.

Now, undoubtedly there are countless of these “what could have been” scenarios where Player X was almost traded to Team Y. Even within the Lee rumors we could find numerous examples of this type of thing. But occasionally a scenario slips through the cracks and offers a point of intrigue that makes an interesting question. And that question today is: what if Chris Davis was the Mariners first baseman?

[pullquote]Smoak has now played in parts of five seasons for the Mariners and owns a .224/.309/.380 line with a 93 wRC+ in 2213 plate appearances. The fact the 27-year old has spent significant time at Triple-A in 2014 doesn’t bode well for his future with Seattle as he’ll be a non-tender candidate this winter.[/pullquote]

Smoak was the centerpiece of the Lee deal and the trade presumably wasn’t going to happen without him. The M’s had long coveted the switch hitter who posted a .853 OPS at three minor league levels in 2009 after being selected No. 11 overall in the 2008 amateur draft. Beavan was the Rangers first round pick, No. 17 overall, in 2007 and was likely a key component of the deal as well. Lueke was a 16th round pick and Lawson was a 14th round pick from that same draft, though neither came with much fanfare. Davis entered the 2008 season ranked as the No. 65 prospect in baseball according to Baseball America but disappeared from the rankings. He was eventually traded to Baltimore along with Tommy Hunter in exchange for reliever Koji Uehara.

Based on Blengino’s comments we know that the two clubs at least discussed including Davis in a deal but it’s unclear how much traction they got. We do know that talks accelerated after the Rangers upped their offer, which could mean that they offered Beavan instead of Davis for example, though that’s my own speculation with no supporting evidence. It’s also possible that the Rangers offered Davis to the M’s and they declined as they were in pursuit of the other players that eventually were included.

What we absolutely don’t know is how Davis would’ve developed in Seattle’s system. Baltimore isn’t exactly renowned for their player development the same was the Tampa Bay Rays are, but they’re not at the very bottom of the barrel. It’s also likely that the Mariners would’ve given Smoak the same opportunities he ended up receiving which would have left little room for Davis to be part of their plans — though he did have some experience at third base. So, for the sake of this conversation, let’s say that Davis would perform exactly the same in blue and teal as he has since the Lee deal took place.

In 2012 the Mariners employed Smoak and Mike Carp at first base and received a .216/.296/.359 line and an 86 wRC+ of production with an underwhelming -0.5 fWAR. Davis look a leap that year and posted a .270/.326/.501 line with a 121 wRC+ but was only worth 2.1 fWAR since he performed poorly defensively. The following year Kendrys Morales was added to the first base mix with Smoak as the primary starter, and that’s when Davis absolutely lit things up. The left-hander hit a league leading 53 home runs and his 168 wRC+ was the third best with only Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera posting a higher mark. And what about Smoak’s season? He actually had the best year of his career to date though his 111 wRC+ was miles below what Davis produced and 11 points more than average.

I always find it ironic when the player deemed to be a deal-breaker in a certain trade struggles to become an average major leaguer while the player passed on becomes a superstar, even if it is only for one year. Certainly nobody could’ve predicted that kind of power outburst from Davis, the same way nobody expected Jose Bautista to blossom into a star after being acquired by the Toronto Blue Jays.

Davis has had a down year by his standards in 2014, but for fun, let’s compare his production to what the Mariners have gotten out of their first basemen on the year.

As expected, Davis has far outperformed Smoak, but it’s interesting to note that both Logan Morrison and Davis have the same wRC+ entering Tuesday night’s games. A lot of Davis’ value has come from the long ball, but he only has 16 total hits more than Morrison. Neither has a triple, but they both have 16 doubles. Both of their on-base percentages are the same and obviously Davis will have a higher slugging percentage given the number of homers under his belt. We can argue about the value of a run batted in, but certainly there’s little argument that Davis has had plenty more opportunity to drive in runs. We can also argue about the runs scored stat in this case too since the Orioles have had more consistency in their lineup than the M’s have had this year.

Essentially, aside from the long ball, Morrison and Davis have been extremely similar hitters in terms of value. As we can see they also have the exact same wRC+ mark, and LoMo has over 200 plate appearances to make up the difference in hits between the two of them. Based on his seasons totals, we could expect Morrison to add approximately 50 hits — 10 of which would be doubles and five would be home runs — if we calculated out the difference in plate appearances, and presumably his wRC+ could end up being a couple points higher.

Morrison will be payed just $1.75 million in 2014 compared to the $10.35 million salary Davis will have earned — minus about $1.6 million lost to suspension — so the Orioles are literally paying for home runs in this case. Although they certainly didn’t think that their slugger would fail to hit his weight (230 pounds) this year. On the defensive side of things Davis does have eight DRS at first while LoMo has none, but Morrison does have one DRS in right field — it’s a very small sample size — so considering the fact first base defence isn’t all that important, one could pose an argument that the Mariner first baseman actually has more value than Davis since he can somewhat competently play right field at times too.

Factor in the difference in salaries and what investing $8 million elsewhere could do to your club — for the Mariners that’d constitute the salaries of Fernando Rodney and Joe Beimel — and there’s a point to be made that Morrison has been a more valuable asset than Davis this year. But the home runs and runs driven in do count for something, plus Davis has history on his side, so it’s unlikely we see that debate start any time soon.

Nevertheless, it’s always interesting to think about what could have been, and especially interesting to see what one already has. The argument that adding a third left-handed bat to the lineup alongside Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager, but for my money, I’ll take the three best hitters available regardless of if they’re right-handed, left-handed, or no-handed.

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Tyler Carmont

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