ORLANDO, Fla. – The Cubs viewed Aroldis Chapman only as a rental closer and didn’t show any interest in the free agent last winter or even pretend like a reunion might happen. That trade-deadline deal with the New York Yankees was all about World Series or bust.
Wade Davis – who became part of the defending champs after the Jorge Soler trade with the Kansas City Royals during last year’s winter meetings – is a different story as a low-maintenance closer with a sophisticated approach to pitching, quiet leadership skills and no off-the-field baggage.
That doesn’t mean Theo Epstein’s front office will come anywhere close to the record-setting, five-year, $86 million contract the Yankees handed Chapman last offseason. But just look at the supply-and-demand dynamics and there appears to be a way Davis could return to Chicago, where he set a franchise record by converting his first 32 save chances in a Cubs uniform.
This is only Day 1 of the general manager meetings at the Waldorf Astoria Orlando. But you can already cross off the Yankees – and the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants after they invested $142 million combined in Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon last winter – and begin to see how the options narrow for an All-Star closer tagged with a qualifying offer.
The Boston Red Sox are set with Craig Kimbrel. The Philadelphia Phillies and Detroit Tigers are rebuilding. There are only so many teams that can afford a high-priced closer, have a clear ninth-inning need and expect to contend in 2018. Plus, right-handed relievers are seen as an overall strength in an otherwise underwhelming class of free agents.
“We think the world of Wade, on the field and off the field,” Epstein said Monday. “We’re definitely going to talk to him.
“Not only did he have an outstanding year in terms of his performance, but he was a terrific leader in the bullpen. He was really valuable to those other guys down there. Any club would love to have him in their clubhouse.
“We’ll certainly engage with him. He knows that we’re not known for giving long multiyear deals to relievers, but it’s definitely worth talking.”
The Cubs are also expected to revisit their talks with the Baltimore Orioles about Zach Britton, as Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports and MLB Network reported, though Epstein broadly hinted that for now they are probably out of the business of trading a young player with four or five seasons of club control for a one-year rental.
“There are a number of guys on the board that we would be comfortable with closing for us,” Epstein said. “Some have closed in the past. Some haven’t.
“There are a lot of different ways we could go with that.”
MLB Trade Rumors projected Britton will make $12.2 million through the arbitration system in 2018, his final season before free agency. The Cubs targeted Britton this summer but didn’t want to risk the Orioles dragging it out until the final moments before the trade deadline and winding up with nothing, taking what they thought was a good deal on July 30 with the Tigers for lefty reliever Justin Wilson (who put up a 5.08 ERA and didn’t make the National League Championship Series roster).
“Guys pop up,” said Epstein, who believes Wilson will rebound next season and pointed to Hector Rondon developing from a Rule 5 pick into a 30-save closer. “Things change quickly, so you don’t want to panic and say: ‘We have no closer coming the next four years.’"
“We have a really talented ‘pen. Right now, we don’t have someone that we can fully count on in that role. But I know we will by the time we get ready to head to Arizona.”
Whether Davis reports to Mesa – or winds up closing for the St. Louis Cardinals – the Cubs are going to be patient and creative during an offseason where they will have options (like Brandon Morrow) as they try to find multiple high-leverage relievers.
“You can destabilize a good club really quickly with uncertainty at the back of the ‘pen,” Epstein said. “You blow a few games in April and May. You have undefined roles. Worse yet, you don’t have enough talent to close down close games and it can really destabilize the entire team, beyond just the impact of the wins and losses.
“The starting pitcher feels pressure to go deeper in games. The offense feels pressure to put up a huge number. It can be tough. If you’re a contending team, you have to go into the year with enough talent in your ‘pen where you feel confident you can shut down close games against good teams.
“Whether or not you want to have a ‘proven’ closer or have someone grow into that role, that’s an open question. But you certainly have to have enough talent.”