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Khris Davis and the future of the A’s

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The 2019 season was nothing short of a disaster for Khris Davis. Now, much of the A’s future rests on his shoulders.

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

One fly ball down the left field line was all it took to derail Khris Davis’ season.

Less than three weeks after signing an extension to keep the slugger in Oakland another two years, the designated hitter was forced onto the field for an interleague game against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Leadoff hitter Adam Frazier sliced a fly ball into foul territory. Davis made an excellent catch, but collided with the left field railing. He was removed from the game an inning later and his season would never be the same.

Previously one of the most consistent hitters in baseball, Davis was arguably Oakland’s worst hitter the rest of the way. From May 8 on, he slashed just .217/.289/.351 with 13 home runs, only good for a 72 wRC+.

The A’s made it work, and still won 97 games once again despite Davis’ struggles. But going forward, they might not have that luxury.

Davis’ contract will pay him $16.75M each of the next two years. According to Spotrac, that figure represents 19.57% of the A’s total payroll, not counting pre-arbitration salaries. This offseason, it seems like the team made that work. While a larger upgrade in the bullpen or at second base would have been welcome, Oakland was able to retain most of their successful 2018-19 squad without pushing over the $100M mark for total payroll.

But in 2021, things might get dicey. The A’s are set to lose key contributors all around the diamond to free agency. The headliner, shortstop Marcus Semien, remains an extension candidate. But any new deal would probably pay the leadoff hitter around $20M per season, likely setting an Oakland record for both average annual value and total contract value.

The bullpen is also set to take a significant hit. Righties Liam Hendriks, Yusmeiro Petit and Joakim Soria will all hit the open market. As of now, those are Oakland’s three best relievers. They’ll also lose starter Mike Fiers, though the team is somewhat deep in starting pitching and can likely afford to let him walk.

Arbitration raises will make others more expensive, including star infielders Matt Chapman and Matt Olson, who will each receive their first significant raise. Lou Trivino, Frankie Montas and Tony Kemp will also enter their first year of arbitration, while Chad Pinder and Chris Bassitt hit their second and Sean Manaea and Mark Canha hit their third.

By my incredibly rough, back-of-the-napkin math, those subtractions and raises would leave the A’s with somewhere around $20M in payroll space for 2021. That means maybe bringing back Semien, or adding a quality reliever or two and bargain hunting for a new starting shortstop. Sure, maybe payroll starts to climb as progress on the new ballpark continues. But I’ll believe that when I see it; this is a team that has still yet to pass the $100M mark.

Luckily, the A’s have very few guaranteed contracts on the books for 2021. But that brings us back to Davis. His $16.75M would go a long way in helping retain Semien and/or Hendriks. But it’s a guaranteed deal, and as of now, there’s no way the A’s are getting out of it — according to Baseball Trade Values, the contract is already well underwater and the A’s would have to eat almost all of it to move Davis.

So now, it’s up to Davis to produce. If he rebounds to his usual 40+ home run, .247-hitting self, he’ll be worth the contract. That production would help offset some of the offense lost if Semien walked, and the A’s lineup would remain strong despite his departure.

The major projection systems expect something in the neighborhood of a 105-115 wRC+ for Davis in 2020. That’s not great and not a full rebound, but after his struggles in 2019, I think the A’s would take it. Maybe even at that point, the contract becomes movable.

But another year like 2019 and the team is in serious trouble. They need to capitalize on the young talent they currently have, and an unproductive Davis clogging up nearly a fifth of the payroll would make that incredibly difficult.

Davis’ defensive limitations make it even harder. If he struggles again, young players like Sheldon Neuse, Greg Deichmann and Austin Allen could theoretically be productive replacements. But Davis isn’t a viable option in the outfield, so he has zero value as a bench player. The team will likely be forced to ride the rest of his contract out with him on the roster and in the starting lineup, hoping for a rebound at some point.

This isn’t to say the Davis contract was a mistake ... necessarily. As of now, it certainly looks like one. But his 2019 was pretty much the worst case scenario, a severe and unexpected drop-off for one of the most consistent power threats in the game. He could still very easily return to form in 2020 and 2021, earning every penny the A’s paid him and then some.

But now, that’s uncertain. The last version of Khris Davis we saw was not a major league player. It’s very possible he continues down that path and the A’s have a very significant, somewhat self-inflicted obstacle in their competitive window.

Davis’ comments this spring have been encouraging. He’s admitted that his struggles last year were due to a combination of his May injury and a loss of confidence, and now that he’s fully healthy and fully confident, he seems like he’s back on track. He’s looked decent this spring, sporting a .300/.462/.300 line through his first 13 plate appearances (obviously, a tiny sample size).

He hasn’t shown the power yet, though, and while spring training stats always need to be taken with a grain of salt, we may actually be able to learn something from Davis’. When he’s going right, he’s blasting the ball to right-center field. If he’s able to get back to doing so with consistency, I’ll feel a whole lot better about him, even if it is “just spring training.”

The A’s need Khrush Davis in 2020 and beyond. The team knows it, he knows it, his teammates know it, and the fans know it. His impact on and off the field could make or break the team’s immediate future.