Should Cubs Wade Into Deep End, Bring Davis Back as Closer?

When the Cubs traded Jorge Soler to the Royals for Wade Davis prior to the 2017 season, even the biggest Soler fans (present company included) had to admit it was a total steal. Chicago got a lock-down stopper with all the effectiveness and none of the baggage they had with Aroldis Chapman, and all they had to give up was an oft-injured outfielder with a ceiling he couldn’t climb a ladder to reach.

Davis became an All-Star who saved 32 games en route to an NL Central title, while Soler played most of the season in AAA. But the real risk the whole time was the disparity in the players’ level of control, as Davis is now a free agent. So the big question now is whether the Cubs should bring him back on a long-term deal.

There are strong cases to be made for and against keeping the stoic right-hander in a Chicago uniform. I’m going to lay out both before I give my own opinion on what path the Northsiders should opt to follow.

There are several factors that make keeping Davis the smarter decision. To begin with, the rest of the relief pitching market is pretty thin. Fernando Rodney is 41 years old, Francisco Rodriguez posted a 7.38 FIP in 2017, and Greg Holland is a year removed from major elbow surgery. Jake McGee lost his job to Holland in Colorado and 33-year-old Brandon Morrow was used and abused by the Dodgers in the playoffs.

The Cubs’ internal closing options aren’t too desirable if Davis departs. CJ Edwards has the best stuff of the bunch, but chronic control issues make him a risky play at the end of games. Former closer Hector Rondon struggled mightily in 2017 and Pedro Strop seems best deployed as a setup man. Dillon Maples has an electric slider but wasn’t very effective in limited action this past September.

Davis began his career as a middling starter in Tampa Bay, but put up outstanding numbers in Kanas City after coming over as a throw-in to the James Shields/Wil Myers trade. Davis had a 1.00 ERA (1.19 FIP) in 2014 and a 0.94 ERA (2.29 FIP) in 2015, his first two seasons as a reliever. He allowed no earned runs in the Royals’ two World Series runs those years.

Injuries held Davis to 43 innings in 2016, but he had a 1.87 ERA (2.29 FIP) and 27 saves while replacing the injured Greg Holland as closer. Joe Maddon used Davis judiciously in 2017– only 58.2 innings — yet he still earned 32 saves with 2.30 ERA (3.38 FIP). The Florida native allowed just six homers in 2017, which seems amazing until you realize he allowed three total over as many previous seasons.

One more factor that could influence the Cubs decision is that the rival St. Louis Cardinals have already expressed interest in Davis. The Cardinals bullpen was a complete mess in 2017, so keeping the Redbirds from a major upgrade at the closer position and helping their own chances to boot would be a wise move for Chicago.

All that said, there is an argument for the Cubs to move on from Davis this offseason. For one, he has had some significant injury concerns in the past. He missed over a month in 2016 with a forearm strain, which can be a precursor of elbow ligament issues. While he obviously avoided that fate and pitched well in 2017, the fear is never completely gone.

While he still had a great year, Davis’s innings total was down from his dominant seasons in ’14 (72 IP) and ’15 (67.1 IP). We also saw his 2017 numbers spike in the second half as his usage increased. And he’s 32 years old now, so the concerns about usage and stamina and health can’t necessarily be waved off like so many gnats.

Another consideration is the general reluctance of the Cubs front office to invest heavily in relief pitchers. Paying a steep price via trade for a year or two of a reliever is something they have done, but big money for multiple years has been a rarity for Theo Epstein and crew. They made no effort to sign Chapman or Kenley Jansen last offseason, largely because assuming consistent performance over the length of a contract presents a great deal more risk.

But even knowing all the inherent risk in such a move, I believe Chicago will have to bite the bullet and lock down Davis for several seasons. Despite the drawbacks, a confluence of several other factors makes re-signing Davis the right choice. In addition to the lack of other quality options either internally or externally, the closer’s terrific stuff, fear of division rivals, and Davis’s postseason track record (even in 2017 he was the Cubs’ best playoff option) outweigh everything else..

The final factor is something that is harder to quantify. Truly elite closers have the mental makeup to shake off mistakes and keep their calm in high-leverage spots. No closer will be perfect and things will inevitably go wrong, but the truly special ones remain unflappable in those scenarios. The moment is never too big for Wade Davis and that kind of fortitude isn’t easy to find. The Cubs can’t afford to let that kind of closer get away.

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