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Explaining Wade Davis's full impact on Cubs and hidden value as a free agent

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USA TODAY

Explaining Wade Davis's full impact on Cubs and hidden value as a free agent

The Cubs understand Wade Davis cannot only be measured in saves (76 across the last three seasons) or career postseason ERA (1.40) or All-Star appearances (three years running). There is real value to the way Davis interacts with teammates, the peace of mind that comes with the ninth inning and the outsized influence those elite closers have in the playoffs.

That makes Davis such an interesting case study for a front office that generally avoids long-term commitments to closers, viewing the job as too narrow and too volatile and believing that the next great reliever can develop organically.

Maybe the Cubs will ultimately decide that they need to pour their resources into filling roughly 400 rotation innings while planning for next winter’s blue-chip class of free agents and the escalating costs for their young hitters.

Davis is 32 years old and coming off a season where he put up a career-high walk rate, got hit noticeably harder in the second half and threw 92 pitches in his last two playoff appearances.

Davis also has a 32-for-33 in save chances on his 2017 stat sheet, a World Series ring from the 2015 Kansas City Royals, a more sophisticated ninth-inning style than, say, Aroldis Chapman’s 100-mph fastball and a reputation for being a baseball gym rat and a pitcher whisperer.

“He is always trying to learn, always trying to figure things out,” said Brian Duensing, another free-agent reliever who would be a good fit as the Cubs rebuild their bullpen. “The guy’s so well-prepared. He’s got great stuff, obviously. But he’s also a guy that knows what he has. He knows the type of pitcher he is, and he’s constantly in the film room looking at video.

“He has an approach every time he faces a team. He knows what he wants to do to certain guys. He’ll even talk about it to us in the bullpen.

“He won’t talk about every hitter, but there will be two or three guys. He’s just like: ‘This guy is a prime candidate for’ – whatever, a front-hip cutter – and sure enough he faces the guy and he called the whole at-bat four innings beforehand.”

Duensing remembered being with the Royals on a minor-league deal for spring training in 2016 and how Davis subtly pointed him in a new direction.

“Literally, we were sitting next to each other and he was talking about some mechanical things (Zack) Greinke would do,” Duensing said. “(Wade) said (Greinke) would try this and this and that. I’m like: ‘Oh, that makes sense.’ So I went out and tried doing it from the left side. I’m like: ‘Oh, well, that feels way more comfortable than I had been feeling for two years now.’”

Duensing wound up earning a role with the Baltimore Orioles bullpen in 2016, parlaying that into a one-year, $2 million deal with the defending World Series champs, posting a 2.74 ERA in 68 appearances for the Cubs and becoming part of Joe Maddon’s playoff circle of trust.

“(Wade) turned my career around a little bit,” Duensing said. “I had been struggling for a while, but he helped me kind of find my release point again, and it felt comfortable to be on the mound, just by having a nonchalant conversation with him.”

Are those quiet leadership skills worth the four-year, $62 million contract the San Francisco Giants gave Mark Melancon last offseason? Probably not, but presence and intangibles do matter as the Cubs try to reboot Carl Edwards Jr., fix Justin Wilson and overhaul their bullpen while continuing to be a 90-win team that’s expected to compete for a World Series title.

“He’s just cool, calm, collected – ‘Triple Cs,’ I call him,” Edwards said. “Watching him, it’s like reading one book – ‘Three Little Pigs’ – over and over again. Sooner or later, you’re going to know exactly how to do it, and you’re going to know exactly what the story is. Just watching Wade, it actually gave me some motivation and it gave me a lot more confidence.”

The Cubs have traded for two of the game’s best closers within the last 16 months, using Chapman and Davis as short-term solutions and setting up one of their most critical decisions this winter: Can they afford to not think big again?

“Wade has been such a big factor for us,” general manager Jed Hoyer said, “not only in terms of how he pitches in the ninth inning, but there’s also a calmness and a consistency to him that I think is contagious to the guys in the bullpen.

“We’ve been really fortunate to have him this year. There’s no doubt there’s a disproportionate value in a bullpen in October. We’ve seen that for the last few years, and that’s not going to go away.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

Spring training baseball games are up around the bend, but before boys of summer get into organized action, two of the team’s new coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey sit down with Kelly Crull.

Plus, Vinnie Duber joins Kelly to discuss these baseball conversations including the memorable first words of Kyle Schwarber to Chili Davis, “I don’t suck!"

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here:

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

MESA, Ariz. — We know Willson Contreras doesn’t like baseball’s new pace-of-play rules.

He isn’t the only one.

“I think it’s a terrible idea. I think it’s all terrible,” Jon Lester said last week at spring training, before the specifics of the new rules were even announced. “The beautiful thing about our sport is there’s no time.”

Big surprise coming from the Cubs’ resident old-schooler.

The new rules limit teams to six mound visits per every nine-inning game, with exceptions for pitching changes, between batters, injuries and after the announcement of a pinch hitter. Teams get an extra mound visit for every extra inning in extra-inning games. Also, commercial breaks between innings have been cut by 20 seconds.

That’s it. But it’s caused a bit of an uproar.

Contreras made headlines Tuesday when he told reporters that he’ll willingly break those rules if he needs to in order to put his team in a better position to win.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If I have to pay the price for my team, I will,” Contreras said. “There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? … You have to go out there. They cannot say anything about that. It’s my team, and we just care about winning. And if they’re going to fine me about the No. 7 mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”

Talking about pace-of-play rule changes last week, Cubs manager Joe Maddon said his team would adapt to any new rules. In Chicago baseball’s other Arizona camp, a similar tune of adaptation was being sung.

“Obviously as players we’ve got to make adjustments to whatever rules they want to implement,” White Sox pitcher James Shields said. “This is a game of adjustments, we’re going to have to make adjustments as we go. We’re going to have to figure out logistics of the thing, and I would imagine in spring training we’re going to be talking about it more and more as we go so we don’t mess it up.”

There was general consensus that mound visits are a valuable thing. So what happens if a pitcher and catcher need to communicate but are forced to do it from 60 feet, six inches away?

“Sign language,” White Sox catching prospect Zack Collins joked. “I guess you have to just get on the same page in the dugout and hope that nothing goes wrong if you’re out of visits.”

In the end, here’s the question that needs answering: Are baseball games really too long?

On one hand, as Lester argued, you know what you’re signing up for when you watch a baseball game, be it in the stands at a ballpark or on TV. No one should be shocked when a game rolls on for more than three hours.

But shock and fans' levels of commitment or just pure apathy are two different things. And sometimes it’s a tough ask for fans to dedicate four hours of their day 162 times a year. So there’s a very good reason baseball is trying to make the game go faster, to keep people from leaving the stands or flipping the TV to another channel.

Unsurprisingly, Lester would rather keep things the way they are.

“To be honest with you, the fans know what they’re getting themselves into when they go to a game,” Lester said. “It’s going to be a three-hour game. You may have a game that’s two hours, two hours and 15 minutes. Great, awesome. You may have a game that’s four hours. That’s the beautiful part of it.

“I get the mound visit thing. But what people that aren’t in the game don’t understand is that there’s so much technology in the game, there’s so many cameras on the field, that every stadium now has a camera on the catcher’s crotch. So they know signs before you even get there. Now we’ve got Apple Watches, now we’ve got people being accused of sitting in a tunnel (stealing signs). So there’s reasons behind the mound visit. He’s not just coming out there asking what time I’m going to dinner or, ‘Hey, how you feeling?’ There’s reasons behind everything, and I think if you take those away, it takes away the beauty of the baseball game.

“Every game has a flow, and I feel like that’s what makes it special. If you want to go to a timed event, go to a timed event. I’m sorry I’m old-school about it, but baseball’s been played the same way for a long time. And now we’re trying to add time to it. We’re missing something somewhere.”

Whether limiting the number of mound visits creates a significant dent in this problem remains to be seen. But excuse the players if they’re skeptical.

“We’ve got instant replay, we’ve got all kinds of different stuff going on. I don’t think (limiting) the mound visits are going to be the key factor to speeding this game up,” Shields said. “Some pitchers take too long, and some hitters take too long. It’s combination of a bunch of stuff.

“I know they’re trying to speed the game up a little bit. I think overall, the game’s going as fast as it possibly could. You’ve got commercials and things like that. TV has a lot to do with it. There’s a bunch of different combinations of things. But as a player, we’ve got to make an adjustment.”