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The Khris Davis dilemma

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What to do about the veteran DH?

Cleveland Indians v Texas Rangers Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

When the Texas Rangers announced the trade that sent Elvis Andrus and Aramis Garcia to the Oakland A’s, along with some cash, for Khris Davis, Jonah Heim and Dane Acker, my initial reaction was that Davis was the new Austin Jackson, a player that the Rangers acquired because they were taking on salary in order to buy some prospects from a Bay Area team, but who wasn’t actually going to play for them or spend any time on the 40 man roster. I said when the news broke that the trade was happening that I expected the Rangers to designate Davis for assignment immediately.

Davis, after all, isn’t really a fit on a rebuilding Ranger team. The focus for Texas in 2021 is building for future, and Davis is a 33 year old in the last year of his contract, the oldest position player, by far, on the team’s 40 man roster.* Davis is limited to DH duties, and the Rangers have Willie Calhoun penciled in at DH, plus David Dahl and Joey Gallo who will likely be getting the occasional start at DH, plus Ronald Guzman’s winter ball performance and strong spring training means that the team is looking at a way to keep both Guzman and Nate Lowe, both first basemen, on the roster, something complicated by Guzman being out of options.

* The next oldest? Jose Trevino. Freaky, huh?

Now, the Rangers do have a need for a righthanded power hitter in the middle of their lineup, from a lineup construction standpoint, and Davis is a righthanded power hitter, having led the majors in home runs in 2018, a season where he finished 8th in the MVP balloting. And all the players I mentioned above in the DH/1B/COF carousel are lefthanded hitters, so he offers something they don’t, in that regard.

Of course, the reason the A’s were willing to give up Heim and Acker in order to get the Rangers to take Davis in this deal — and kick in money — is that Davis hasn’t hit at all since that 2018 season. He slashed .220/.293/.387 in 2019, and .200/.303/.329 in 2020. I’m willing to give anyone a mulligan for a bad 2020 season, but given Davis was also awful in 2019, and given he offers no positional versatility, his utility on the Rangers roster would seem to be slim — there’s no value in a DH who doesn’t hit.

I’ve seen it posited that, well, the Rangers could keep Davis on the roster and give him a couple of months to see if he can get back on track, and if he does, well, maybe someone will give you a decent prospect or something for him. The problem with that is that he’d be spending those couple of months as a platoon DH, he’d be occupying a roster spot that could be used on someone with more utility to the team, and even if he hits, sellers have found the market for RH rental DHs, even really good ones, to be uninspiring. Just look at what the Detroit Tigers got for J.D. Martinez — who was slashing, at the time, .305/.388/.630, and was in his fourth straight season of being an impact middle-of-the-order hitter — when they traded him in mid-July, 2017, to the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Davis hasn’t hit for much of spring training, which, as the beats have reminded us, is normal for Davis, who has historically never hit in spring training. Chris Woodward has been quoted as saying that the team’s internal data shows that Davis is not chasing pitches out of the strike zone — rather, his problem has been not making contact often enough with pitches in the strike zone. That leads to concerns about bat speed, and whether Davis is at a point where the bat speed isn’t where it needs to be for him to be productive.

Davis not hitting in Surprise, while Ronald Guzman has impressed, would have normally put the Rangers in a position where it was easier to make the call to keep Guzman and jettison Davis. However, Willie Calhoun’s starting the season on the injured list with a groin injury has provided a roster opening that wouldn’t ordinarily be there, at least for the short-term. And yesterday, Davis hit a pair of home runs, after hitting a home run in a B game the day before.

At this point, it appears likely Davis makes the Opening Day roster, due to Calhoun starting the year on the injured list. I said before spring training started that I didn’t see how the Rangers would have more than one out of Davis, Guzman and Rougned Odor on the roster, given their positional limitations and inability to be sent down, but all three appear likely to be on the roster on April 1, so that’ll show me.

That being said, once Calhoun returns, the Rangers are presented with a dilemma. If the team goes with a four man bench, then three of those spots go to the backup catcher, the utility infielder, and the fourth outfielder. With Joey Gallo in right field, David Dahl in left, and either Ronald Guzman or Nate Lowe at first base, you have two spots available between the DH and fourth bench spot, and three players — Willie Calhoun, Khris Davis, and either Guzman or Lowe — to fill them. Calhoun and Lowe can be optioned, but those are two players who you presumably want to get a good look at in 2021, and sending them to get reps at the Alternate Training Site doesn’t seem like a great plan.

Now, the Rangers could go with a five man bench, particularly at the beginning of the year, though that means a 12 man pitching staff. Given that two of the spots in the starting rotation appear to be dedicated to the piggyback/tandem setup, the Rangers will have seven pitchers in their rotation, and a 12 man pitching staff would mean only five pitchers in the bullpen, and I have to think the team would be hesitant to go with such an arrangement for long.

Thus, the dilemma the Rangers will likely face in the first week or two of the season...do they keep Khris Davis on the roster by doing something with one of the other LF/1B/DH options, or do they cut Davis loose and eat the money owed to him?

The money is, I suspect, a not-insignificant factor here. While the Rangers’ chances of getting anything of value in terms of prospects for Davis from another team appear to be slight, regardless of what he does, if they hold onto David into the summer, they may find a team that would be willing to take Davis and his contract off their hands. Not Davis’s entire contract, to be clear — the Rangers will almost certainly have to eat some Davis’s salary to move him, even if he’s hitting — but if they could end up dealing him to a team that would take on $2-3 million of what he was due from that point forward, well, I suspect ownership would be pleased about that. And so part of the decision is going to be, how much is an available 26 man roster spot and 40 man roster spot over the first half of the season worth? If you think there’s a decent chance Davis will be good enough to get a team to absorb some of his salary later in the year, is that savings of a few million dollars worth having Nate Lowe or Willie Calhoun optioned or Ronald Guzman exposed to waivers?

It is worth noting that all the above may well end up being moot. These things often work themselves out. Calhoun, Dahl and Gallo all have a history of landing on the injured list at times, and it could be that when Calhoun is ready to return, Dahl has tweaked his shoulder, or Gallo has pulled a muscle, or Nate Lowe has twisted his ankle. It could be that Guzman is terrible the first couple of weeks of the regular season, leading the Rangers to believe they can run him through waivers and outright him with little risk of losing him. It could be someone else performs so poorly that they have to be optioned or dropped. It wouldn’t be shocking if, in July, Davis is still here and the 2021 version of Brad Snyder or Brandon Snyder is getting starts at first base and we’re shaking our heads about how ridiculous we were being in February or March, thinking that there would be a problem with too many players for the COF/DH/1B spots.

But if it isn’t moot, hard decisions will have to be made. And regardless of how it plays out, we know that if it works out, we will give credit to the general manager, Chris Young, and if it doesn’t work out, we can blame it on team president Jon Daniels.