By Bruce Levine–
CHICAGO (CBS) — Maybe there were deals as good as the one the Cubs pulled off for closer Wade Davis during the winter, but it’s doubtful there was a better offseason trade than the one that sent outfielder Jorge Soler to the Royals for Davis. It has enhanced Chicago’s chances of going deep into the playoffs for a third straight season.
It marked the second time in six months that Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer used organizational depth to fill a huge hole in the closer’s role. Last July, they acquired the monster arm of Aroldis Chapman for shortstop prospect Gleyber Torres, outfielder prospect Billy Mckinney and right-hander Adam Warren. The key to that deal was Torres, who’s rated as one of the top minor league players in baseball.
Both trades were made with confidence. At shortstop, Chicago had All-Star Addison Russell and Javier Baez ahead of Torres. In the outfield, the Cubs had a combination of players superior to Soler and/or those who needed development in 2017.
Right now, the deal looks lopsided. Soler has been sent to the minor leagues after hitting just .164 for the Royals in the early going. Davis is near-perfect so far. He has converted all 12 of his save chances and has only allowed three runs, two earned, all season. Entering play Tuesday, he has 27 strikeouts in 20 1/3 innings and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of nearly 4-to-1. He sports a 0.89 ERA and 0.74 WHIP.
This is the second time that Cubs manager Joe Maddon has had the pleasure of managing Davis. In fact, it was Maddon who converted Davis from a starting pitcher to a reliever with Tampa Bay, for whom Davis played from 2009-’12. The transition didn’t go over that well with the young Davis at the time.
“The thing at the time was Wade was always trying to hold his velocity back,” Maddon said. “You did not see the 93-96 mph all of the time. The other thing was he threw a two-seamer then. It was always a ball. Inside to a lefty, down and away to a right-handed hitter. So, we had to get him to not do that anymore. He had a really good slider and a good curveball. He has always known what he was doing out there.”
Davis honed his skills to the point that he became the closer in Kansas City for its 2015 championship team. The maturation began under Maddon and his coaches in Tampa.
“You watch him pitch as a closer, he knows how to pitch,” Maddon said. “He is just not out there throwing the baseball. Those are the differences for me seeing him as a pitcher then and now. As a guy, he has always been the same real slow-moving kind of a fellow. When I talked to him in spring training he would say, ‘I am all right.’ He said you will see that 94-95 mph in June or July. This is in March. I said, ‘OK, Wade, I want to see it now.’ He was always that kind of fellow. We all appreciated that.”
Davis wasn’t pleased with the move to the bullpen back then but he’s certainly flourished in that role.
“If you are a pitcher who looks like he can be a starting pitcher, the money is in the starting role,” Maddon said. “So, eventually, he found his way into the bullpen and has done very well for himself (a $10-million contract in 2017). Young starters want to stay in that role because it is a land of riches. There has to be that light-bulb moment where you figure out you are better off doing the other thing. His stuff definitely up-ticked when we put him in the bullpen.”
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.