On Friday morning, Baltimore Orioles first and third baseman/certified genius Chris Davis tested positive for amphetamines and was suspended for the next 25 games. Davis immediately fessed up, saying in a statement:
I apologize to my teammates, coaches, the Orioles organization and especially the fans. I made a mistake by taking Adderall. I had permission to use it in the past, but do not have a therapeutic use exemption (TUE) this year. I accept my punishment and will begin serving my suspension immediately.
Said suspension includes the 17 games remaining in the Orioles' season and their first eight games of the postseason, should they get so far. No more of this Nelson Cruz (yes, now an Oriole) taking a hit for Biogenesis and then theoretically riding to the Rangers' rescue in October as was the controversial case last year. Davis will hit the pine and be back anywhere from the ALCS round to the World Series, depending on the length of series and how far the Orioles, leading the AL East by 10 games and therefore a postseason lock with Davis or without him, can go.
Unlike their immediate prospects, how far they go in the postseason will in part be determined by Davis's absence. The irony is that this year Davis has been almost as bad as he was good last year, when he followed up his 2012 breakthrough with an MVP-level season in which he hit a league-leading 53 home runs. The chronic free-swinger (a term that may not have relevance to today's game -- who isn't a free-swinger in this strikeout-dominated era? Still, Davis is more of a hacker than most) hit .286 despite striking out 199 times.
This year, the strikeouts have ticked up, and combined with a .242 batting average on balls in play, Davis has been rowing backwards at full speed. His season ends with 26 home runs but rates of .196/.300/.404 and a league-leading 173 strikeouts. He will lose the whiffs crown to (troublingly) Mike Trout in a matter of days, but his 33 percent strikeout rate, worst in the majors, worse than Chris Carter's or Adam Dunn's or B.J. freaking Upton's, will continue to stand for his regression.
As problematic as Davis's season has been, the Orioles needed him. He had come up through the Rangers' system as a third baseman and of late had been subbing at the hot corner for Manny Machado, who is gone for the year with his second knee surgery in as many seasons. Davis hadn't hit a whole lot better at third than he did at first, but the possibility that he might run into a home run amidst all the strikeouts carried more promise than another day of Ryan Flaherty, Jimmy Paredes, or recent acquisition Kelly Johnson.
Davis' loss is oddly contradictory; he had been hitting better of late (and yes, there is a temptation to see a correlation with his consumption of Adderall and a little uptick in offense), but as stated, he hadn't done much as Machado's substitute -- he finishes with .191/.257/.412 rates in 20 games at the position. Yet, he was at least notionally a star, a leading slugger. What he might have done was more valuable than what he did, even if he ended up never doing it.
You might have to read that last sentence a few times, but it makes sense. It's just emblematic of the very good but also very odd season the Orioles have had.
Swinging and missing Davis has hurt more in 2014 than 2013. (Photo credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)
A complicating factor in Davis's disappearance is shortstop J.J. Hardy's sore back. Flaherty has already been pressed into action substituting for him. Hardy is reportedly much improved after a cortisone shot and will return to the lineup on Friday, but back injuries are always slow to heal and quick to recur. The Orioles' infield was thin before; now it looks like a piece of paper viewed from the side.
Viewed through the wrong end of the telescope, the Baltimore Orioles are a strange team to be on a pace for 96 wins and their biggest divisional lead since Earl Weaver's glory days. They have had to do without Machado and Matt Wieters. Steve Pearce has been a major cog in the offense, and whereas he has a decent track record hitting in the minors, he's having a breakthrough season at 31 after years of failed auditions in the majors: He's the baseball version of an economic bubble. Left field has been a mélange that has lately devolved on ex-Chicago White Sox adventurer Alejando De Aza (the adventures take place in the outfield). Nelson Cruz is having one of his best seasons on paper, but he's packed all his hitting into the spring and the fall with a huge trough in the middle. Adam Jones is having his typical year, which is by no means an insult, but it's also not anything you would vote a trophy to. They have a good bullpen endgame with Zach Britton and Darren O'Day, but the starting rotation lacks anything like a traditional Cy Young candidate.
That said, the Orioles have succeeded because even if they lack a player having a monster season, they're not truly miserable anywhere. No, second baseman Jonathan Scoop can't hit (.214/.247/.364) but he runs into the odd home run and plays strong defense. Caleb Joseph has been decent subbing for Wieters insofar as catchers go. Even Davis, with his home runs and walks, was roughly a league-average hitter even given all the dejected trips back to the dugout dragging his bat. He will now go into the books as a statistical oddity emblematic of this weird era: He is just one of three players to have a sub-.200 average and a .400-plus slugging percentage.
Buck Showalter should be a lock for the Manager of the Year award, because in the absence of being able to attribute this wonderful, franchise-redeeming season to any single player or group of players, we're forced to attribute mystical powers and intuition to the skipper.
There are many questions about Davis's suspension still to be answered, all of which involve variations on, "How could you be so stupid?" According to Dan Connolly of the Baltimore Sun, despite Davis's previous exemption, he didn't apply for one this year. How could he do that if he had a legitimate need? Is the need in fact legitimate? Was this a second offense, given 25 games is the second-offense penalty? What possessed him to gamble on his and his team's season now?
Oh well. Selfishness and poor judgment are nothing new -- the 1920 White Sox won 96 games too, falling short of the pennant only when a third of the team was suspended. Davis's suspension isn't that, it's addict behavior at worst, an illness, not a crime. Still, the Orioles will now complete their best season since 1997 without even the possibility that he might make contact against Royals or Angels pitching to push the team deeper into October.
No, they'll have to get there without him. When he comes back, we can hope that with or without the drugs his attention will be more focused on the goal instead of whatever it was he was looking for in the bottle.