Cubs

How Wade Davis returning to Cubs could fall into place

How Wade Davis returning to Cubs could fall into place

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.”

Small sample size: A look at Cubs' early-season statistical pace

Small sample size: A look at Cubs' early-season statistical pace

As the Cubs put the finishing touches on a sweep in Miami, they are now roughly 1/10 of the way through the 2019 season.

If they had their way, they obviously would've preferred to boast a better record than the current 8-9 mark through 17 games, but things are trending in the right direction for most of the club. (Playing a three-game set against the hapless Marlins will certainly help the good vibes.)

But since the Cubs got out to a 1-6 start, they've gone 7-3 and now have a +18 run differential, good for second in the Naional League.

That puts the Cubs on pace to win 76 games with a +171 run differential. For perpsective, the 2018 Cubs won 95 games with only a +116 run differential.

A lot can happen over the 90 percent of the season that remains and The Small Sample Size crowd is out in full force in April, as usual. By themselves, none of these stats really mean anything or tell us much beyond "Player X is off to a hot start" or "Pitcher Y is struggling." 

But that doesn't mean we should just ignore the stats and pace some players are on. Where's the fun in that? 

So let's take a look at some of the early-season stats surrounding the 2019 Cubs:

Javy Baez

El Mago has been red-hot of late, collecting 11 hits in his last 18 at-bats. That currently puts him on a season pace of:

229 hits, 143 runs, 48 doubles, 57 homers, 152 RBI

You can bet he'd finish near the top of NL MVP voting once again if he maintained that pace all year long. (However, he'd still probably lose to Christian Yelich, who picked up right where he left off last season and is currently on pace for 77 homers and 222 RBI. Seriously.)

Baez is the poster child for the small sample size claim. He was hitting just .232 with a .735 OPS as of Saturday morning, and his season pace would've looked a whole lot different had this article come out then. He's in the midst of an upswing, so these numbers are skewed. 

However, with the way he's driving the ball to the opposite field right now and turning singles into doubles, don't be surprised if he approaches the 83 extra-base hits he put up last year.

Willson Contreras

On pace for: 57 HR, 114 RBI, 86 BB, 143 K

...and that's in only 448 projected at-bats. 

Those would certainly be NL MVP caliber numbers from a guy some expected to challenge for the award after his blistering stretch in the middle of 2017. Contreras was so hot that he actually might've approached 30 homers and 100 RBI that year if he hadn't hurt his hamstring and missed a month.

If he stays healthy, his record-setting start to 2019 helps make those benchmarks seem like a possibility once again.

Contreras won't maintain his 1.224 OPS or .766 slugging percentage all season, but he looks like a completely different hitter than he was last year, when he hit just 7 homers in the first half and had only 10 all season.

Jason Heyward

On pace for: 38 HR, 105 RBI, 133 R, 95 BB, 57 K

To put those in perspective, here's Heyward's season average in each category during his first three years in a Cubs uniform: 

9 HR, 55 RBI, 62 R, 46 BB, 73 K

So even with a serious regression from his hot start, it wouldn't take much from Heyward the rest of the way to top his 2016-18 average stat line. 

The power is definitely eye-catching, but the walk-to-strikeout ratio is particularly noteworthy. His command of the strike zone is a huge reason why he's been able to hit .353 with a 1.052 OPS in the first 1/10 of the season.

Heyward has looked so good, he's now hitting fifth in the Cubs — a spot that once belonged to...

Kyle Schwarber

On pace for: 29 HR, 57 RBI, 48 BB, 181 K

Schwarber is in the midst of a tough stretch right now, so these numbers look off — especially the strikeouts (he's whiffed 12 times in his last 5 games). The power is still there, but the RBI total remains low and even the walks are suspiciously below his standards.

Schwarber has a career 13.4 percent walk rate and drew free passes at a 15.3 percent clip last year. This season, he's all the way down to 8.8 percent. 

Daniel Descalso 

On pace for: 86 RBI

Where is everybody who mocked the Descalso signing over the winter? In hiding right now, probably. 

The veteran has been exactly as advertised in the early going, with a professional and advanced approach at the plate. That includes a 7-for-12 mark with runners in scoring position (plus 4-for-7 with runners in scoring position and two outs). 

Descalso has been having some great at-bats, but there's no way those numbers will continue at their current pace all season. So don't bet on 85+ RBI, especially when he's only on track for 419 at-bats.

Ben Zobrist

On pace for: .379 OBP, 86 BB, 67 K, 48 R, 0 XBH

Zobrist turns 38 next month, but there's no way he suddenly lost all of his power. This is a guy who put up double digit homers every season from 2008 through 2017 before hitting only 9 last year. Age may be catching up to him a bit and sapping some of his slug, but he still hit 28 doubles last year in 455 at-bats.

He continues to keep his strikeouts and walks nearly even, as even with a 2-strikeout performance Wednesday night, Zobrist still has more free passes than whiffs this season. Between his 86-walk pace, the .379 OBP and the fact he spends most of his time in the leadoff spot in the Cubs order, it's surprising he's only scored 5 runs so far. That should change once Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo start heating up.

Speaking of...

Bryzzo

We don't need to worry about a pace for Bryant and Rizzo. Everybody knows they're struggling. 

This is the only stat you need to know:

Just wait until these guys start hitting. This Cubs offense is going to be a force to be reckoned with all year. (Unless, you know, they "break" in the second half again...)

Now, on to the run prevention...

Pitching stats are not as much fun to project out over a full season simply because they don't play every day and the small sample size carries even more weight (especially for relief pitchers). 

But here are a few fun pace stats for some Cubs arms:

—Cole Hamels is on pace for 29 wins and 0 losses.

—Jose Quintana is projected for 276 strikeouts in 200 innings. (His career high in whiffs was 207 in only 188.2 innings in 2017.)

—Jon Lester is on pace for only 29 starts, which would be the first time he failed to take the ball at least 30 times in a season since 2007.

—Brad Brach is on track for 95 walks in 67.2 innings. He's never walked more than 38 batters in a season (and that came in 79.1 innings in 2015). 

—Kyle Hendricks is ticketed for 133 runs allowed...but only 76 of those would be earned. The Cubs defense has done him no favors to begin the year.

—Pedro Strop is projected to lead the Cubs in saves with...10. He is the only Cubs pitcher to pick up a save through 17 games and he has just the 1 (from April 11 against the Pirates).

—Steve Cishek is on pace for only 67 appearances — a pretty big step down from the 80 games he pitched in a season ago.

—Brandon Kintzler is projected to give up only 58 baserunners in 76.2 innings (48 hits, 10 walks) while striking out 86 batters. He has never finished a season (in which he's made at least 10 appearances) with more strikeouts than innings pitched and his career-low WHIP was 1.065 in 2013, when he surrendered 82 baserunners in 77 innings.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Cubs easily on your device.

CubsTalk Podcast: Todd Hollandsworth gives an outside perspective

javy_hollandsworth_cubs_podcast.jpg
USA TODAY

CubsTalk Podcast: Todd Hollandsworth gives an outside perspective

Former Cubs TV analyst Todd Hollandsworth talks with Luke & Kap and gives an outside perspective on the 2019 Cubs.

—Holly talks about being in the the TV booth and on the road every day with the Marlins. (0:46)

—Todd shares his thoughts on the 2019 Cubs and how the team was built through the draft. (1:51)

—Holly breaks down Jose Quintana's recent run of great starts. He Also talks about Yu Darvish and if what we saw Monday was for real. (4:03)

—Todd talks about the N.L. Central. Draws similarities to the N.L. East. He says the Cubs still win the division - IF they pitch. (5:37)

—Holly shares his thoughts on former Marlin Christian Yelich and his dominant start to the 2019 season. (8:05)

—Todd talks about the "Yelich" trade and how the deal has worked out (so far) for the Marlins. (11:09)

—Holly discusses Javy Baez sliding into second base and the replay review system in MLB. Where do they go next? How can MLB fix the problem with aggressive base-running vs. being too cautious when sliding. (13:17)

 

Cubs Talk Podcast

Subscribe:

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Cubs easily on your device.