By Randy Richardson
Wade Davis may be new to the Cubs but he has family ties to the team that stretch back to the 1980s. He is the second cousin of former Cubs catcher Jody Davis, a two-time All-Star and favorite of broadcaster Harry Caray.
The 31-year-old right-handed reliever is known as a man of few words. He often gives one-word responses to questions. That’s just fine with the Cubs, who are hoping that their biggest offseason acquisition will let his arm do the talking.
The roller-coaster ride that was the Cubs’ 2016 postseason underscored just how difficult it can be to close out games.
With the goal of repeating as champions, the Cubs front office’s No. 1 offseason goal was obvious: they needed an elite closer to fill the critical role that fireballer Aroldis Chapman played for them in the second half of the 2016 season. Yes, a weary Chapman nearly blew the wild Game 7 for them but the reality is that the Cubs don’t get to Game 7 without the heavy workload the hard-throwing lefty put in before that game.
The Cubs’ Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer went to work soon after the celebration was over to find a replacement for Chapman, a free agent who re-signed with his former team, the Yankees.
The Cubs gave up a lot to get Chapman at mid-season, trading their top prospect, shortstop Gleyber Torres, to the Yankees. They knew they would have to spend a lot or give up a lot to replace him.
They ended up trading away slugging outfielder Jorge Soler, whose development has been slowed by injuries, to the Kansas City Royals. In return, they got their new closer in Davis, a two-time MLB All-Star and a member of the Royals’ 2015 World Series-winning team.
Team president Theo Epstein called it “an aggressive move, the move of an organization that’s hungry to win another World Series.”
Baseball analysts generally view it as a winning move for the Cubs.
Bleacher Nation’s Michael Cerami contends that Davis has been among baseball’s best relievers since 2014, when he became a full-time reliever. He cites to Fangraph’s Wins Above Replacement ratings over the last three years, which place Davis fifth with an fWAR of 6.3. Only Kenley Jansen (7.0 fWAR), Andrew Miller (7.2 fWAR), Chapman (8.0 fWAR) and Delin Batances (8.5 fWAR) rank above him.
“This isn’t just another, run-of-the-mill acquisition,” Cerami writes. “No, the Cubs acquired one of the very best closers in the entire game.”
The Ringer’s Michael Baumann agrees: “This is a steal for the Cubs.”
The Washington Post’s Dave Sheinin is a little bit more wary, citing concerns about Davis’ health after he spent a total of six weeks on the disabled list in 2016, including all of August, with forearm injuries but agrees that when healthy Davis is one of the best in the game. “With the Davis deal,” Sheinin writes, “[the Cubs] dealt from their strength and filled their one obvious need. If they do nothing else of consequence this winter, they will be well-constructed for a 2017 title defense.”
Max Rieper of Royals Review agrees with Sheinin’s assessment. “If he has recovered from his forearm injuries, the Cubs should be getting one of the best relievers in baseball, a silent assassin who snuffs out any hope from opposing hitters,” Rieper told Bleed Cubbie Blue’s Al Yellon. “But the threat of Tommy John surgery will likely hang over his head all season.”
Davis returned in September and finished the season with seven consecutive scoreless appearances for a final line of 27 saves in 30 chances and a 1.87 ERA. He had ERAs of 1.00 and 0.94 in 2014 and ’15, primarily as a setup man.
Davis will be reunited with Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who was his skipper when he played for the Rays from 2009 to 2012. Davis was a starter the first three of those seasons before being converted to a reliever in 2012. His new-found dominance out of the bullpen came after the 2014 death of his stepbrother and best friend, Dustin Huguley, at age 25, from a genetic heart defect. Davis switched uniforms from No. 25 to the number his brother wore in high school, 17, to honor him.
“This guy knows how to pitch,” Maddon said of the right-hander during an interview on MLB Network’s “Hot Stove.”
“It’s not just about throwing one pitch and trying to blow people away,” Maddon said of Davis. “He’s got a great slider, a cutter that he came up with, and I love his curveball, and he knows how to compete on both sides of the plate.”
Randy Richardson is the author of the Wrigleyville murder mystery, Lost in the Ivy, and a regular contributor to Wrigleyville Nation