Royals trade closer Wade Davis to Cubs for outfielder Jorge Soler

From 2014-16 in the Kansas City Royals bullpen, Wade Davis allowed just 24 earned runs in 182 2/3 innings.
From 2014-16 in the Kansas City Royals bullpen, Wade Davis allowed just 24 earned runs in 182 2/3 innings.

The parameters came together on Tuesday night, and the trade was official by Wednesday afternoon, but the structural factors that led to the Royals sending closer Wade Davis to the Cubs for outfielder Jorge Soler began to surface in the weeks after the regular season.

The Royals’ brain trust faced an offseason dilemma that no front office would want, a showdown that pitted the present against the future. So on Sunday night, the eve of the Winter Meetings, a collection of baseball men sequestered themselves in a room here at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center and tried to find the right way forward.

As general manager Dayton Moore addressed his top lieutenants, the issued remained clear. The Royals needed to trim salary to last year’s record high to meet a budget from owner David Glass. They also needed a pre-emptive strike against a looming free-agent exodus. When the 2017 season is over, the Royals could face life without Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Danny Duffy, Alcides Escobar and Davis.

Maybe they could sign one or two. But Moore understood the reality. If they did nothing, the Royals could chase another postseason berth in 2017 and delay the pain for another day. But when that day came, the reckoning would be fierce.

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“Economically, we understand what our number is, what our market is,” Moore told The Star on Wednesday evening, after a trade that shook up the Royals’ offseason. “We felt like we were going to have to make some moves to put us in a better position with our payroll, to give us flexibility — and also add talent that’s a part of our future.”

The Royals, Moore said, understood a trade was coming. They knew that Davis, one of the most dominant closers in baseball, was a desired asset after receiving plenty of interest at the general managers’ meeting last month. They knew that they coveted a certain type of player in return — big-league experience, years left before free agency, a player who could blend in with the club’s core.

They knew, Moore said, that they needed to find a deal like the one that sent Davis to the defending World Series champs for Soler, a 24-year-old, power-hitting outfielder who has $15 million remaining on a contract that will run through 2020.

“This was by far — this was the deal that made the most sense,” Moore said.

No team wishes to lose the services of Davis, who is set to make $10 million this season before reaching free agency. In four seasons, Davis became one of the best relievers in franchise history, transforming from a mediocre starting pitcher to a bullpen cyborg who delivered a mesmerizing three-year stretch. The image of him lifting his arms into the air after the final out of Game 5 of the World Series is one of the iconic moments in franchise history. But the Royals sensed an opportunity to acquire an asset that could help them in 2017 and beyond.

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“It was pretty clear that Wade Davis was probably going to be most attractive to other teams,” Moore said. “Because of the closer market, because of the makeup of bullpens.”

Soler arrives in Kansas City after spending parts of three seasons in Chicago. He will play right field and could see time in a designated hitter rotation, Moore said.

A high-ceiling talent with prodigious power potential, Soler battled injury and a strikeout-prone approach at the plate. He batted .258 with a .328 on-base percentage and 27 homers in 765 plate appearances across 211 games. But as a 6-foot-4, 220-pound outfielder, he brings a highly-regarded pedigree and two of the most valuable assets in baseball: Youth and time.

Soler is under contract for four more seasons, though he can opt into the arbitration system when he accrues the requisite service time. If he files for arbitration, his guaranteed contract would be gone and the Royals would still control him through his arbitration years. In 2017, the Royals will save $7 million by swapping Davis for Soler.

“We obviously love his upside, love his power,” Moore said. “(We) like the fact that we have some control over the next four years.”

A native of Cuba, Soler defected from his home country in 2011 and signed a nine-year, $30 million with the Cubs in 2012. At one time, the contract was viewed as one of the most club-friendly in baseball, though that stance softened as Soler battled through various issues in Chicago. After a sterling performance during the 2015 postseason, Soler batted just .238 with 12 homers in 86 games in 2016. By the postseason, he was largely a platoon player, losing time to Ben Zobrist, Dexter Fowler and Jason Heyward in the Cubs outfield.

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Yet the Royals see upside. They view Soler’s defensive abilities as average with an opportunity to improve under the tutelage of Rusty Kuntz. They believe his struggles at the plate were largely due to inconsistent playing time and his young age. They also love his power, believing it to be the kind of tool that is often out of their price range on the free-agent market.

“We’re getting a player we feel is just scratching the surface,” Moore said. “He has major-league experience. He’s been a part of championships. And he’s hungry to play and hungry to win.

“And we’re going to have him for the next four years. And we think we’re getting a player who’s getting ready to enter the prime of his career. We’re not going to have to live with some of the growing pains.”

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The loss of Davis, of course, leaves a sizable hole in the bullpen. On Wednesday, Royals manager Ned Yost committed to using Kelvin Herrera as the team’s closer, but the rest of the roles remain in flux. Moore said improving the bullpen remains a top priority. On Tuesday, Yost joined the front office for a three-hour session spent assessing possible bullpen targets. One problem: the same financial limitations that led to a Davis trade could handcuff the search.

“We wanted to improve our bullpen, because it didn’t perform to our expectations last year,” Moore said “Now we don’t have Wade Davis. So the natural question is: ‘Well, how are young going to fix it?’

“I don’t know yet.”

As Moore spoke, explaining the processes behind the trade, Soler greeted the trade with a simple tweet.

“Kansas City … are you ready? I am! Can’t wait for spring training.”

As the news pinged around the Winter Meetings, Davis was undergoing a physical — the Cubs felt comfortable with the results and the status of Davis’ right forearm — and spending the rest of the day with his young daughter. Then he reflected on his bittersweet end in Kansas City.

After four seasons with the Royals, he will head to Chicago, joining the reigning World Series champions and reuniting with manager Joe Maddon, his skipper during his early years with the Tampa Bay Rays.

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Four years ago, Davis came to Kansas City as a 27-year-old starter, acquired along with James Shields in a blockbuster deal that sent Wil Myers, Mike Montgomery, Jake Odorizzi and Patrick Leonard to the Rays. In the ensuing years, the deal would become known as the James Shields trade, a deal that stokes the flames of a baseball renaissance in Kansas City. But by 2015, Shields was gone, and Myers’ career was struggling to take off, and Davis was closing out a World Series championship in New York.

But small-market teams cannot base decisions on sentimentality. So on Wednesday, Davis found himself in another deal. The Royals opted for pain — while looking out toward the future.

“We’ve built this organization up to a level where we all were happy with winning a World Series,” Moore said. “But now, we want to make sure we continue to compete.”

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