After nearly 11 seasons in the American League, veteran outfielder Rajai Davis is returning to the Senior Circuit in 2019, where he began his career as the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 38th-round draft selection in 2001.
Since then, Davis has solidified a reputation as one of the league’s best teammates and base stealers. The 38-year-old, perhaps in his final days as an active pro, signed a minor league contract with the Mets on December 17.
While Davis is well known for his legs—since 2007, his 414 stolen bases are by far the league’s highest total; Jose Reyes is second with 361—the Connecticut native will long be remembered for his dramatic home run in the eighth inning of the seventh game of the 2016 World Series, tying the deciding game with a sizzling line drive off of Aroldis Chapman.
Davis has held starting roles at almost all of his major league stops, including Cleveland—where he returned in 2018 after a year elsewhere—Detroit, Toronto, and Oakland.
With the Indians this past season, Davis pinch ran nearly as much as he started, and that’s likely his ceiling at this point in his career.
Davis is by no means a bat-first player. In over 4,500 career trips to the plate, he’s posted an OPS+ of 86, topping 100 (or league average) just twice this decade. Only nine players with as many plate appearances as Davis in 2018 recorded a lower figure than his 52.
Despite having one of the league’s worst average exit velocities last season, Davis actually increased his hard-hit rate from 24.3% to 26.8%; a relatively unremarkable number but one that actually placed him two-tenths of a percentage point above former Mets infielder Wilmer Flores.
However, as mentioned above, Davis’ most attractive tool is his speed, and despite playing the 2018 season as one of the league’s oldest hitters, its effectiveness is still there.
According to sprint speed, Davis was tied for the 15th-fasted baserunner with at least 90 competitive runs. That rank is even more impressive considering Brett Gardner was the only other 30-year-old in the top-25.
Defensively, Davis has rated out as average to slightly-below-average. By outs above average, he has posted a cumulative -3 in the three years of tracking. Fielding runs above average paints a worse picture, as he’s only rated positively once in the last five seasons, a career-best 4.9 in 2016.
Davis’ best defensive asset is his versatility in the outfield, as he’s played 780 innings at each spot.
How he fits
The main thing to point out with regards to Davis’ role with the Mets in 2019 is a contractual oddity that comes into play when a major league free agent signs a minor league contract.
In accordance with Article XX-B(5)(d) of the CBA, a team that signs a player who became a major league free agent at the end of the previous season (via contract expiration and at least six years of service time, so this doesn’t affect players who are non-tendered or refuse outright assignments) must, by the fifth day prior to the start of the regular season (making this date March 23 in 2019) agree to place the player on its Opening Day roster (or disabled list) or release him.
Failure to do so awards the player $100,000 in the form of a retention bonus and an opt-out that can be triggered on June 1 (provided he hasn’t been added to the major league roster in the interim).
Given that Davis’ contract with the Indians expired after this past season, this rule applies to him. It makes for an interesting, if not inconsequential, situation, in which both the team and the player must decide if he would have a more direct path to the major leagues in another organization. While Davis could have been penciled in as the Mets’ fourth outfielder when he was signed, the acquisition of Keon Broxton on January 5 all but closed that door, barring any injuries.
It’s also possible that Davis and the Mets have agreed to include an opt-out clause at an earlier date in spring training, by which the team would have to make a similar decision.
At present, I would put the odds of Davis opening the season in the Mets’ organization, at any level, at below 50%. To a player who has made over $30 million in his career, $100,000 is barely an incentive to open the season in the minor leagues, and it’s possible that there would be a contender interested in his skill set, leading to a trade.
Otherwise, Davis will be one of a few choices for an early-season promotion if the major league team is in need of an outfielder.
Statistics via Baseball-Reference, Fangraphs, Baseball Savant, Baseball Prospectus, Brooks Baseball, Quality of Pitch, and Statcorner.