O's have faith in Davis' ability to prove his worth
Teammates, manager believe slugger can produce big numbers
SARASOTA, Fla. -- There are three tattoos on Chris Davis' upper body: a cross on his back that came in 2006, the word "salvation" scrawled vertically down his right side the following year and, most recently, the Bible passage from the Epistle to the Hebrews, Chapter 12, Verses 1-2.
The passage is etched into Davis' left side, words that resonated even when the dull thud of the ball hitting the catcher's mitt behind him became a daily occurrence, a cause for sleepless nights and a revolving ticket to Triple-A Round Rock.
"Let us throw off everything that hinders," the black ink read over his rib cage. "And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us."
Yes, the hulking Davis -- who muses that he was portrayed as a "square, emotionless beast" given his penchant for power -- is a player firmly entrenched in his faith.
The Orioles have put all of their faith in Davis. Named the team's starting first baseman this winter -- with no heir apparent on Baltimore's roster -- the 2012 seasons finds Davis contractually out of options and eager to prove he is the organization's answer.
"I don't think it was ever any question that I can hit at Triple-A," said Davis, who is a career .318 Minor League hitter with a .597 slugging percentage over six seasons. "But the question still remains, can I do it at the big league level every day over an extended period of time?"
The Orioles are counting on it. The club traded for the 25-year-old Davis along with pitcher Tommy Hunter in a midseason deal with the Texas Rangers that sent popular reliever Koji Uehara to Arlington. Unable to develop their own power-hitting corner infielder -- a sore subject among the organization's fan base in recent years -- the O's weren't in the price range in this winter's Prince Fielder sweepstakes. Instead, they are betting on Davis.
"Don't overlook him," manager Buck Showalter said when Davis, who has a .448 career slugging percentage in parts of four seasons, is mentioned as Fielder's consolation prize. "Chris has got that kind of power. ... He knows it's not an open-ended ticket here, that there's got to be something there, but when he centers a ball up, he can do special things with it."
"He's got that kind of [Fielder-like] upside, he really does," said catcher Taylor Teagarden, who came up through the Rangers' system with Davis. "He hasn't put together a complete season like Prince Fielder just yet, but he's got that kind of power to all fields. And he's a solid defender, which is a huge plus when you're talking about him as a whole player. I've seen him at his best, and he's definitely got that kind of ceiling."
It wasn't supposed to be like this; the talk that he still hasn't put it together 3 1/2 years after his Major League debut, the whispers that perhaps Davis -- with 44 career homers in 294 games -- is destined to be a player who simply can't adjust to the big league game. All Chris Davis ever did was hit home runs, with the only hiccup a 1-for-32 start in his first few weeks with low Class A Spokane. Davis, who broke countless bats as he struggled to make the transition from aluminum to wood, sat down with then-Minor League hitting coordinator Brook Jacoby and hitting coach Jim Nettles to discuss his swing. Once they broke it down, Davis broke through and finished the season as Spokane's best hitter.
It was easy after that. The following season Davis shot to Double-A and was named the organization's Minor League Player of the Year. He opened 2008 with Frisco before being promoted to Triple-A Oklahoma, where he bashed 10 homers and 31 RBIs in 31 games. It was supposed to be a temporary fix when Davis got the fateful call from Texas at the end of June, a no-fail scenario where the Rangers could lay eyes on their promising young slugger and send him back down when Hank Blalock came off the disabled list.
Davis had other plans. After legging out a memorable first hit in a dribbler that barely got off the grass, Davis really started swinging, becoming the first Rangers player to homer in his first two career starts. Davis led all Major League rookies in doubles, RBIs, extra-base hits and slugging percentage from his callup to the end of the 2008 regular season. By the time the following spring rolled around, Davis thought he would have the first-base job locked up. The Rangers -- who drafted highly touted first baseman Justin Smoak in the first round of '08 Draft -- told him nothing was guaranteed.
"I felt like they had a lot invested in him and I was always holding the position down until he came and took over," Davis said of the switch-hitting Smoak. "And once he got [to the big leagues], then I was going to be moved -- to third base, to outfield, to Triple-A, whatever. That may not have been the case, but that's how I saw it."
Davis did nothing to help his case, hitting .202 with 114 strikeouts and just 15 home runs in the season's first 77 games. He was optioned back to Triple-A in July and recalled at the end of August, the first of many trips back to the Minor Leagues.
"I was failing at everything," Davis said of an '09 season which he admits he was in way over his head. "Not just baseball, I was carrying it home with me. It meant a lot to me, this game means a lot to me. I just took it really hard, and didn't really know how to separate the two. ... When I struggled, it was that on top of what I was thinking [with Smoak], and I just became unglued a little bit."
Again given a chance as Texas' Opening Day first baseman in 2010, Davis lasted just over two weeks -- hitting .188 with no homers in 15 games -- before Smoak was summoned for his long-anticipated debut.
"Chris can get in his own way at times," said Rangers hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh, who also had Davis in the Minor Leagues. "He knows how talented he is, and when he's not playing at his ability, as a young player that frustration can set in. And I think that's the only thing that's holding him back, is to mentally stay consistent with it, and say, 'I'm going to have my days that are not going to be great, but that's OK.' You're human. And shake it off."
Even when Smoak was traded to Seattle that July, Davis struggled. He was shipped out to Triple-A Round Rock again, this time in favor of Mitch Moreland. Davis went back and forth again in 2011 before July's trade sent him to Baltimore.
"I don't necessarily think they gave up on me," said Davis, who grew up a Rangers fan approximately 140 miles from Arlington. "There were probably feelings of resentment [toward the organization] at one point in time, but I took it like a man and grew up, and said, 'If I had done my job in the first place and taken advantage of the opportunity I was given, I wouldn't be in this position.'"
There is no superstar to upend in Baltimore, no hot-shot first-base prospect flying through the Orioles' Minor League system. The organization hasn't had a position-player prospect dominate as Davis has -- posting what Hunter dubs "video game numbers" at every Minor League level -- and that is why he is in Baltimore.
"The thing is, when he's relaxed, there's not many people better," Hunter said. "I think that's what he needs. It always helps to be secure to where you can go about your own work, do your own thing and strive for your goals without having to be constantly looking over your shoulder thinking, 'What's this guy doing? What's that guy doing?'"
"I want him to look over his shoulder and see me, and I'm going, 'Let's go. I got you,'" said Showalter, who was the Rangers manager when Davis was a prospect. "What comes first? I like Chris, but I don't like him that much. As a person, I love baseball players, and he's got the potential to bring what a corner infielder in the American League East needs to bring.
"You can tell walking through the door, he smiles real easy right now, because he knows this is that year. [He's thinking], 'This is that time that I'm going to get a chance to do what I know I can do.'"
Those close to Davis say the change of scenery is exactly what he needs, a fresh start and his new organization's support providing a powerful elixir for change.
"This is such a great atmosphere for him to really shine, because they brought him over in a trade, they want him [and] they are going to give him a chance to play every day," Teagarden said. "He wants to prove some people wrong. He's wants to show people what he's capable of doing and his best years are ahead of him."
"I'd be pretty comfortable with Chris Davis if I was [the Orioles' front office]," Hunter said. "He can do it. ... That's the thing that nobody in here knows. They've never seen him do some of the things I have. Stuff that impresses other people [about Davis] doesn't really impress me, because I know what else he can do."
What has never been a question is how badly Davis wants to win -- a still image of him hobbling with a groin injury to squeeze out a double in the Orioles' last game of the year is a memory Showalter still mentally replays months later. Less than two weeks from his 26th birthday, there's little doubt that Davis has grown considerably from the 22-year-old overwhelmed by his first taste of failure. Married this offseason and determined to make Baltimore home, he has a new tattoo -- an old English "J" for his wife Jillian -- and a new lease on his career.
"To be told that I was going to be given the opportunity to prove myself [in Baltimore] was huge," Davis said. "I think, at a time, there probably was [some self-doubt], but I'm confident in my ability. I've been put here for a reason."
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.