Renaissance man Joe Maddon can see a closer like Wade Davis and remember a concept he once read about in Colin Powell’s autobiography: Force multiplier.
This is how Maddon’s beautiful mind works, the Cubs manager going from pop-culture references to old stories from his years as a minor-league grunt to a retired four-star general and former Secretary of State.
Davis is the quiet type who sometimes likes to listen to Beethoven before games to help him relax. He doesn’t simply rely on brute strength, using the refined feel for pitching he developed through 88 starts in The Show, a learning experience that began while Maddon managed the Tampa Bay Rays.
Unlike Aroldis Chapman, Davis also won’t simply be a half-season mercenary, though the 2017 Cubs will have the same mandate to win the World Series.
The expectation is Davis will be an overpowering presence in the ninth inning, someone with the juice to change the complexion of this bullpen and the shape of entire playoff series. Maddon will open his shiny new toy on Tuesday, when pitchers and catchers officially report to Arizona and the Cubs begin their title defense.
“It makes you thick, man,” Maddon said. “Having Wade there from Day 1 makes everybody else a little bit better. And when you win a lot of games in a row, that’s where you have the tendency to beat somebody up.
“So by having this kind of depth, you don’t have to put the burden onto guys. You can spread it out a little more. Having Wade there at the end permits us to use these other guys differently.”
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Maddon clearly had trust issues with his relievers in October, which led to waves of first- and second-guessing this offseason. But the Cubs never really put together the dynamic bullpen they envisioned in late July when they made the controversial Chapman trade with the New York Yankees. By the middle of August, Pedro Strop (torn left meniscus) and Hector Rondon (strained right triceps) landed on the disabled list.
“I look at Strop and Rondon really the same way,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “I don’t think either guy was able to get back to where they were after their injuries. I don’t want to say we kind of rushed them back. I don’t think anyone was to blame.
“The playoffs were going to start – we didn’t have the ability to delay them. But both guys probably didn’t have a chance to really get their legs underneath them and really get back to throwing well before we started the postseason.
“To Joe’s perspective, the playoffs are not exactly a time when you can sort of put a guy out there to see what they have, gain confidence and allow them to get comfortable on the mound. Every inning in the playoffs is high leverage. So as a result, I don’t think either one of those guys was able to get back to their accustomed level of performance.”
Of course, this also hinges on Davis staying healthy and recapturing the form that made him an All-Star closer with the Kansas City Royals. Before finalizing the Jorge Soler deal at the winter meetings, the Royals took the unusual step of allowing Cubs athletic trainer PJ Mainville to examine Davis at his home in New York’s Hudson River Valley and follow up on the flexor strain in his right forearm that twice put him on the disabled list last season.
The Cubs are working backwards from Davis. But they also found three relievers off the scrap heap in the summer of 2015 – Clayton Richard, Trevor Cahill and Fernando Rodney – who helped spark a run to the National League Championship Series.
And in the 10th inning of a World Series Game 7, the Cubs used a skinny kid (Carl Edwards Jr.) the Texas Rangers once drafted in a round that no longer exists (48th) and a guy whose career had stalled to the point where he actually thought he would be playing in Japan last year (Mike Montgomery).
“Year to year, there are such wild swings,” Hoyer said. “That’s just the nature of bullpens. Sometimes you find guys that really click and they get hot for a moment in time and they can help you win.
“If anything keeps you up at night – both in the offseason and during the season – it’s how to build a bullpen. Because I don’t think you ever get to a place where you feel great about it. The minute you feel great about it, someone gets hurt or someone’s performance falls off and now you’re back looking for solutions again. There’s really no way to ever feel like you’ve solved that riddle.”