Jorge Soler

Wade Davis is the big-game hunter Cubs need now - and maybe in the future

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USA TODAY

Wade Davis is the big-game hunter Cubs need now - and maybe in the future

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – The origin story of Wade Davis transforming into a dominant closer goes back several years ago and involves a black bear on Canadian hunting grounds about 90 minutes outside of Toronto.

This is the rare animal that didn’t make the video tribute the Tampa Bay Rays cut for Cubs manager Joe Maddon when their ex-zookeeper returned this week to Tropicana Field. But if Davis could stay cool facing a 300-something-pound beast, Maddon reasoned, then a late-inning jam shouldn’t seem so daunting.

“You don’t get much reaction from Wade,” Dave Martinez, Maddon’s longtime bench coach, said on the Cubs Talk podcast. “What you see is what you get. I (asked): ‘Hey, I got a place to go bear hunting, you guys want to go?’

“If you can imagine (Wade) and Jeff Niemann — Jeff Niemann’s 6-10 — they sat up in a tree stand. They saw a black bear come out and he shot it. I wish we had the video. The video’s floating around somewhere.

“We were just talking about it the other day. (Former Rays travel director) Jeff Ziegler went with us, too, and he never did get his bear rug. And he got a little bent out of shape about it.”

Martinez doesn’t know where that trophy wound up. But Davis remains the big-game hunter the Cubs need now — and maybe for the future.

“I’m not thinking past the next two weeks, honestly,” team president Theo Epstein said. “It’s bad form to be talking about offseason stuff at this time of the year.

“He’s had a great year. He’s been perfect in save situations. He’s been a leader out there. Any team would love to have him. But we’re not into the winter yet.”

Are the Cubs willing to pay the price for an All-Star, World-Series-tested closer? Can they afford not to?

Epstein’s front office has been philosophically opposed to making long-term investments in closers. But the Cubs are running out of young hitters to trade for short-term fixes, shipping an elite prospect (Gleyber Torres) to the New York Yankees in last summer’s blockbuster Aroldis Chapman deal and getting Davis by moving a diminishing asset (Jorge Soler) to the Kansas City Royals in a winter-meetings swap.

The Cubs also haven’t seen that alternative ninth-inning solution organically develop this season. It’s hard to picture the Cubs just handing Carl Edwards Jr. the closer’s job heading into his second full season in the big leagues. Pedro Strop also looks more like a very good setup guy than a first-choice candidate to be the 2018 closer.

Justin Wilson (5.79 ERA) hasn’t distinguished himself since coming over from the Detroit Tigers at the July 31 trade deadline, the Cubs now using the lefty reliever in low-leverage/mop-up situations to help restore his game. Hector Rondon — who has 77 saves in a Cubs uniform and a checkered medical history — is dealing with right elbow inflammation.

All those moving pieces make Davis (32-for-32 in save chances) an anchor heading into the four-game showdown against the Milwaukee Brewers that begins Thursday night at Miller Park, where Jake Arrieta will be making his first start since straining his right hamstring on Labor Day and limited to 75-80 pitches.

The Cubs have a 3.5-game lead on a Brewers team that hasn’t gone away yet and a single-digit magic number (eight) to clinch the National League Central. Maddon has already signaled that he will deploy Davis for multiple innings when necessary.

“It’s a good feeling to know that he can do it,” Martinez said. “But all in all, you still have to have these other guys contribute, which they have, and get all the bullpen onboard.

“Now each moment is critical and moving forward they’re going to be put in some pretty tough situations. Each one of them has to step up and do their jobs.

“Do we count on Wade? Absolutely. But we also count on these other guys to go out there and perform.”

During the All-Star festivities in Miami, Davis said “some of that seems unrealistic” when asked about the massive free-agent contracts the Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers gave Chapman (five years, $86 million) and Kenley Jansen (five years, $80 million) last winter.

But this October will be another huge platform for Davis, who said it already felt like that all season at Wrigley Field.

“Every game, there’s always a constant buzz here,” Davis said. “They’re into it. They’re getting loud. It’s a great atmosphere all year long.”

Through ups and downs with Cubs, Jason Hammel and Jorge Soler earned their World Series rings

Through ups and downs with Cubs, Jason Hammel and Jorge Soler earned their World Series rings

It looked weird, three Kansas City Royals employees wearing gold-trimmed Cubs jerseys on their day off. But there must be some sort of 108-year exception to Major League Baseball's no-fraternization policy or whatever unwritten rule that might fall under now.

Jason Hammel, Jorge Soler and Travis Wood received their World Series rings before Monday night's game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Wrigley Field. Team president Theo Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and manager Joe Maddon stood near home plate as the Cubs played a tribute on the giant video board above the left-field bleachers and handed out the championship bling, a warm tribute to three players who helped build a contender.

"I love the idea that we're bringing these guys back to honor them in this manner," Maddon said, "because they were really big in regards to us winning the World Series — and in the previous year almost getting to the World Series. I just think that if I'm them, man, I'm just digging on this and there's nothing negative about it whatsoever."

Maddon's quick hook frustrated Hammel, who felt he deserved more respect and latitude as a veteran pitcher who won 33 games and put up a 3.59 ERA in a Cubs uniform.

The Cubs buying out Hammel's 2017 option for $2 million — after he missed his last start with right elbow tightness and didn't make the roster in all three playoff rounds — led to a free-agent odyssey that didn't end until early February with a two-year, $16 million contract with the Royals.

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Whether or not Soler ever puts it all together and lives up to the enormous potential the Cubs saw when they gave the Cuban defector a $30 million, major-league contract, it wasn't going to happen at Wrigley Field now.

Where would Soler play and could he stay healthy? The Cubs felt like they had a diminishing asset on their hands when they executed the Wade Davis trade at the winter meetings. Soler opened the season on the disabled list with an oblique injury.

"I would hope that they would really appreciate the fact that they both got a World Series ring," Maddon said. "That's a nice conclusion to your time in Chicago. The group that we had out there playing last year — I think that they understood what we had going on and why at the time.

"Jason had a great season — 15 wins last year — and again it's just a matter of keeping Georgie out there as often as we possibly could. George the previous year made quite a dent in the (playoffs). I think both of them — regardless of their participation in the World Series — have to take that ring as an indication of all the good stuff they did as a Cub.

"If you're altruistic in regards to your method in being part of a team, then you accept that ring and understand that you're a part of something a little bit bigger than yourself.

"They're all big boys. They understand how it goes."

During a conversation in spring training, Hammel said his family plans to keep their house in Lakeview and would be open to the idea of a return at some point in the future.

"I loved my time as a Cub," Hammel said. "And who knows? Maybe I finish out there in the bullpen at the end (of my career). I don't hold grudges. I'm certainly not going to burn a bridge.

"I'm very happy. We won the World Series. And now I get to go try and do it with another team that's very capable of doing it."

Watch: Former Cubs Jason Hammel, Jorge Soler and Travis Wood get their World Series rings at Wrigley Field

Watch: Former Cubs Jason Hammel, Jorge Soler and Travis Wood get their World Series rings at Wrigley Field

The Cubs handed out those big, sparkly World Series rings last week, but they weren't done passing out jewelry.

Members of the 2016 championship squad who aren't part of the 2017 roster will get their rings as the season goes on, and a trio of former Cubs were on the North Side on Monday to receive their diamond-packed mementoes.

Pitchers Jason Hammel and Travis Wood, as well as outfielder Jorge Soler, all traveled north on their day off with their current employer, the Kansas City Royals, to once more don Cubs jerseys and receive their rings.

Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Joe Maddon joined the former Cubs to salute them at home plate.

Check out the salute in the video above.