And, at long last – well, about a day – the trade is finally done: the Chicago Cubs are sending outfielder Jorge Soler to the Kansas City Royals for reliever Wade Davis.
Davis, 31, is under contract for 2017 at $10 million before reaching free agency, and he is one of the best relievers in baseball.
We’ll spend a lot of time in the coming weeks unpacking this one, as we do, but I do have a variety of thoughts on a trade that will probably be controversial. You’ve got injury questions on both sides. You’ve got a total misalignment of team control levels. You’ve got one of the best relievers in baseball on one side, and a post-hype former star prospect on the other. You’ve got contract considerations. There are so many inputs on this one that could shove your thinking in one direction or the other, and I’m not sure anyone can reasonably say – as we sit here today – that this team “won” the trade, or that team should have gotten more.
Still, what do we make of this trade? Of the Cubs moving Jorge Soler for a single year of a dominant reliever? How should Cubs fans be feeling today?
This probably says quite a bit about the way the Cubs view their windows of contention, and it aligns with what we’ve been saying for a while now: although the young offensive core should provide the Cubs with a long-term window of contention, there is also a shorter-term peak window within that long-term window, and it expires after 2017 when, among other things, Jake Arrieta might walk, John Lackey might retire, and the Cubs’ rotation becomes a huge question mark. If the Cubs know 2017 might be their best chance to win it all (again) for a little while, they better make sure the most pressing hole is addressed.
In so doing, the price was an asset, to be sure, but it was an asset that – in terms of on-field impact – was probably not going to be all that impactful for the 2017 Cubs. The reality is that, without a couple injuries in the outfield, regular playing time for Soler was going to be virtually impossible. At that point, then, he’s a bench bat and a once or twice-a-week starter at most.
In other words, while we might disappointed that Soler’s trade value was not more significant, or was not utilized for a longer-term asset, the competitiveness of the Cubs’ 2017 roster just increased dramatically.
Assuming health*, the addition of Davis is very significant, as he is one of the best five or so relievers in baseball. It’s going to be a treat to have fun with his numbers over the past three years, since he was sent to the bullpen full-time.
Like when the Cubs added Aroldis Chapman at the trade deadline last year, Davis’s presence bumps everyone else in the bullpen up, and opens up so much more flexibility for Joe Maddon in his reliever usage. Further, it shortens the game in the way that has become increasingly important as teams look to protect their starting pitchers and save bullets for the stretch run and postseason. The Cubs’ starters just threw a whole lot of innings, and protecting them once again early in 2017 is going to be critically important to ensuring they are in a position to succeed in October again.
Moreover, it provides me – if no one else – a great deal of comfort about the bullpen, given the huge questions about Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop, their late-season injuries and performance, and what the Cubs will have in them in 2017.
From there, as we saw this past season, having a pitcher like Davis on the roster can be a truly transformative thing in the postseason. Although injuries can always strike, the Cubs will no longer necessarily be forced to troll at the deadline – and pay the prices that are typically inflated by partners who know they are trading with a team that is already in playoff position – for a true impact reliever. They have him already. Plus a group of other guys in the bullpen who could be very, very good.
Random other considerations about the trade:
- Taking off your Cubs-loving-prospect goggles, you can see the clear risk in Soler, right? Offensive upside that hasn’t fully shown at the big league level, a litany of injuries (many of them repeat hamstring injuries), a contract that is already paying him $4-ish million per year PLUS the right to opt into arbitration if he breaks out, and no indication thus far that he’ll be anything more than a liability in the outfield. It’s easy, in these moments, to focus on what we believe the bat could be – and, I’m telling you, the conceivable upside in that bat is legitimately elite – but it’s not as if there aren’t serious, serious questions.
- I’m sure part of the dissonance among some Cubs fans on this deal (and I’m struggling with it too, if I’m honest with myself) is the long-held belief that, as the Cubs stockpiled these positional guys, we always knew they wouldn’t all stay with the Cubs. But we had kind of automatically assumed when ones were dealt, they would go for cost-controlled starting pitching, not a one-year rental. So, in terms of the way we think about our fandom, we could just transpose our “cool, I get to cheer for this position player for the next five years” to “cool, I get to cheer for this pitcher for the next five years.” We don’t think about these things explicitly in our minds, but I do think it lurks under the surface, poking at us when a deal like this happens. Rational or not.
- Though Davis is being acquired to help the Cubs in 2017 and that’s rightly the focus right now, it’s worth pointing out that, if he’s given a qualifying offer after the season, the Cubs could recoup a draft pick if he leaves. That pick would no longer be after the first round, though, thanks to the new CBA – it would instead be after the second round or after the fourth round, depending on the contract he gets and the Cubs’ luxury tax status at that time (hooray for the new complicated compensation rules!).
- And, hey, if the Cubs crater, which seems impossible, now they’ve got a great deadline trade chip, AMIRITE?
- From here, I’d expect the Cubs to stay involved in the second tier reliever free agent market, but they can afford to be a little more choosey/price conscious. If they could get a Holland/Uehara/Ziegler/Blevins type on a one-year deal? Go for it. As usual, you worry about any crowding in the bullpen later.
- Relatedly, the Cubs will continue to focus on finding depth starting pitching (ideally, younger guys with minor league options left, who can be shuttled back and forth from AAA as necessary), or, if that perfect cost-controlled starter deal comes along, they can pull the trigger and move Mike Montgomery back into the bullpen. I’d also expect the Cubs to keep tabs on Tyson Ross’s rehab. As solid as the bullpen now looks, and as solid as the rotation looks, the depth behind that rotation is sorely lacking. And, despite the Cubs’ unusually strong pitcher health the last few years, they’re just a couple extremely-plausible injuries away from a troubling rotation.
- Cubs GM Jed Hoyer discussed the deal here.
- Also, this:
Since he became a reliever in 2014, Wade Davis's 1.18 ERA is the best of any pitcher in baseball.
— Baseball Is Fun (@flippingbats) December 7, 2016
*Although it’s never safe to fully assume health with a pitcher, particularly one who dealt with forearm/flexor issues last year, we can assume that, since the deal went through, the Cubs were comfortable with the medicals.