A former KC Royals star is a free agent, but now isn’t the time to bring him back to Kansas City.
The KC Royals, a team with a penchant for trying to put broken pitchers back together, caught lightning in a bottle twice last winter when they signed struggling relievers Trevor Rosenthal and Greg Holland to minor league contracts. Both recaptured whatever it is that makes closers great, and although Rosenthal remains a free agent, Holland just returned to the Royals and is the favorite to close next season.
Now, in the midst of an aggressive effort to improve, can the Royals snare that lightning again? Alec Lewis, the talented and knowledgeable Royals beat writer for The Athletic, suggests in a recent story (subscription required) that Kansas City could reunite with free agent Wade Davis; if it happens, and Davis returns to top form, the Royals will, indeed, have bottled lightning for a third time.
Reserving for a moment the question of whether returning Davis to Kansas City makes good sense, pursuing the 35-year old 10-year veteran has all the makings of another Dayton Moore reclamation project. Davis, owner of a once robust resume now tainted by two straight bad seasons, is in disrepair, and will come cheap with little risk; the market, already sure to be deflated by the pandemic, won’t be kind to him.
Instead, Davis will command only a fraction of the $52 million the Rockies paid him for the last three seasons. Simply put, he is an inexpensive bullpen option whose contract, if he fails, won’t darken the Royals’ financial picture. It’s just the kind of potential deal that gets Moore’s attention.
But more important than the money is Davis’ startling decline. He blossomed, of course, as Greg Holland’s eight-inning setup man and second leg of the spectacularly good “H-D-H” Royals bullpen combo of 2014, took over as closer late in ’15 when Holland went down with a torn UCL, and continued in that role in 2016 after the club non-tendered Holland. When KC traded Davis to the Cubs that winter for Jorge Soler, he’d saved 47 games and gone 27-15 with a 2.94 ERA, including 1.00 in 2014, 0.94 in ’15, and 1.87 in ’16. And he secured the final out of the 2015 World Series.
Davis saved 32 games and became a third-time All-Star with the Cubs, then signed his mega-deal with the Rockies that started in 2018. Although his 4.13 ERA in his first Colorado season was uncharacteristically high, he still led the National League with 43 saves and 63 games finished, both career bests. Then came the decline.
His 2019 numbers tell the sad story: 8.95 ERA, 60 ERA+, 1.875 WHIP, 6.1 BB9. Last season was worse—limited by a right shoulder injury to just five appearances, he gave up 10 runs on 10 hits in 4.1 innings. His fastball velocity dropped to just slightly better than 91 mph, its lowest in years.
Colorado released him before the season ended.
So it is that Davis isn’t the Davis he was with the KC Royals, and probably not even the pitcher he was before his 2014 move to the bullpen saved him from becoming the forgotten acquisition in the James Shields-for-Wil Myers trade.
No, Davis isn’t Davis anymore, and he may now be damaged goods. His decline is stunning, his shoulder probably questionable and worrisome.
The Athletic’s Lewis may prove omniscient—maybe Davis will return. Being what they are, nostalgia and sentimentality make us wish he could turn his fortune around in Kansas City. But even if he’s inexpensive, is it really worth it to the Royals to find out? Perhaps, but only if the club sees something in Davis that makes good the odds that he’ll succeed; if that “something” isn’t there, KC should spend the small amount required to sign him on another player.
Davis may not have much, if anything, left, and it’s time for the Royals to invest in fully developing their younger bullpen pieces. Having Davis on the roster blocks at least one promising reliever just when the club seems on the verge of winning again and needs to stabilize its crew.
Make no mistake about it: the 2014-2018 version of Davis would be nice to see back at Kauffman Stadium, but the Royals need to be careful. And wise.
While bringing Wade Davis back to the KC Royals might lead to a storybook ending to his career, it’s a move the KC Royals don’t need to make.