The Wade Davis moment that sticks in my memory came a half-hour or so after the Wade Davis moment the world saw.
You remember Game 6 of the 2015 American League Championship Series. The rain delay. Royals manager Ned Yost did not want to use Davis in the eighth, not with what he heard about the weather. But he did anyway, and once the rain came, it required Davis doing something nobody could remember a relief pitcher doing before.
The delay stretched longer than expected. At first, the Royals heard it could be just 20 minutes. That would’ve been difficult, but not impossible. Then it went a half hour. Forty minutes. Eventually 45, and by the time Davis came back out for the ninth it had been more than an hour since he finished the eighth.
He got through it, of course, because Davis always got through it. He never liked the cyborg jokes, because he’s human and his arm hurts sometimes and this is a brutal game, but dang-it if he didn’t sometimes operate like something more than flesh and blood.
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You could say this about a lot of guys, which has always been the Royals’ biggest strength, but they could not have won back-to-back pennants and the 2015 world championship without the steady former starter they got in a trade that was first named after Wil Myers, then James Shields, and finally Davis.
Royals owner David Glass approached Davis in the clubhouse after the ALCS, with the champagne popping and music blaring, and this is the moment that sticks in my memory.
“I was nervous,” Glass told Davis. “Until I figured out you weren’t.”
The news on Wednesday was a long time coming. Inevitable. Glass has decided against giving the Royals’ homegrown championship core its best chance in what everyone understands would’ve been one final season together in 2017.
It’s disappointing, frustrating, and Glass deserves to be criticized. It’s also reality, one that every employee who joins the Royals and every fan who roots for them must at least indirectly accept.
Glass was a model small-money owner almost from the moment he hired general manager Dayton Moore in 2006. An unwillingness to finish the race will be spun as an attempt to soften the blow in 2018 and compete consistently into the future. Part of Moore’s job, now, is to make that so, which is why this trade had to happen.
Davis is off to the Cubs, presumably replacing Aroldis Chapman for the new world champions. The Royals get outfielder Jorge Soler, a statue of a man — 6-feet-4, 220 pounds, a Cuban defector with monstrous power and four years of club control remaining. He’ll make $3 million in 2017.
That last part is crucial. Davis is due $10 million next season, and then will be a free agent. With Glass demanding a payroll freeze, or even cutbacks, Davis was always the most likely to be traded.
He can still be dominant when healthy, but he is 31 now and went to the disabled list twice last season because of forearm tightness, which often foreshadows Tommy John surgery.
Baseball moves fast. Kelvin Herrera is the Royals’ best relief pitcher now. But they will miss Davis. They’ll miss his reliability — a 1.18 ERA, and 71 more strikeouts than base runners allowed over the last three seasons — and steady presence. But the bullpen also put together 41 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings with Davis on the DL last year.
Soler fits their profile, and fills some needs. He is 24, entering what should be his prime with terrific tools and a growing understanding of the game. He has more raw power than anyone on his new club. He hit .238 with 12 homers and nine doubles across 264 plate appearances last year. His .436 slugging percentage was higher than any Royals regular except Sal Perez (.438), and when adjusted for park and league factors, his on-base-plus-slugging percentage was higher than any of his new teammates.
His game has holes, of course. He strikes out too much and needs to improve his control of the zone. He has a reputation for taking bad routes in the outfield, which could be exposed at Kauffman Stadium. The Royals are betting experience will help him better manage the strike zone, and that Rusty Kuntz’s teaching will help him in the field.
Baseball has made great strides with revenue sharing over the years, and it’s impossible to believe that Glass would put himself at financial risk by maintaining or increasing payroll in what could’ve been the championship core’s final season together.
But there is still an enormous discrepancy in revenues between big and small markets. The Royals’ largest payroll in franchise history ranked 15th in baseball last year.
So baseball’s economics and Glass’ unwillingness to extend has put Moore in a difficult position. His charge is to disassemble a championship roster, trading proven for potential. To lower the payroll while improving the team in both the immediate and long term.
It is an impossible task, if we’re being honest, and the effectiveness of this trade will be determined in no small part by whether and how efficiently Moore can use the $7 million or so that Glass and the Royals save in the deal.
Once this economic reality is accepted, the deal makes sense for the Royals on many levels. There is a thought among some rival executives that Davis isn’t as much of a health risk as his two trips to the DL in 2016 would suggest. He has a reputation of being very protective of his arm, and with his free agency scheduled for after next season, it makes sense for him to be careful.
But he still presents risk for 2017, no matter his employer. Relievers are volatile, and even while maintaining All-Star production Davis’ ERA, walks, strikeouts and hits allowed all regressed last season.
Soler has rare power, and he takes walks. Even if he does not progress in 2017, he should provide the Royals with some moments of easy run production. He is the kind of talent the Royals can’t easily afford on the open market, and if he takes the step forward that many scouts predict, he could be the franchise’s best power hitter in years. Steve Balboni’s record for home runs in a season, 36, could be in play.
If Moore is able to use the payroll savings on, say, a low-risk starting pitcher — like the lottery ticket they hit with Chris Young in 2015 — then this could be a major improvement to both 2017 and beyond.
There is no easy way to break apart a roster that pulled the Royals to the top of baseball and gave Kansas City so much joy. Davis was a major part of that, and will probably be inducted to the team’s hall of fame someday.
But something like this was always coming. The Royals may not be done, either. Outfielders Lorenzo Cain and Jarrod Dyson are drawing interest. Mike Moustakas could be traded. Perhaps others, too.
The playoff runs and world championship were the fun parts. Now comes the painful part, the difficult part. Moore is trying to deal his way out of a hole, serving two masters at once. He can’t do it perfectly. Doing it well would be good enough. This is a logical first step.