Though he was a high-level closer by most statistical measures, Hector Rondon never really engendered the confidence and sense of security you look for in the most elite high-leverage relief pitchers. And so the Cubs traded the farm for Aroldis Chapman, selling a bit of their collective soul and eschewing their oft-discussed character-based strategy for at least a few months.
After riding him hard and putting him up wet, and with the Commissioner’s Trophy safely tucked away, they were content to let Chapman walk in pursuit of a monster contract elsewhere. Though they still possessed several in-house candidates heading into 2017, the Cubs chose once again to go the rental route with Wade Davis. Less controversial and costly, in terms of both soul and trade, the former Royal still came with a fair bit of risk.
The Cubs’ due diligence is paying off early, though, as Davis appears to be every bit the unhittable stopper they had hoped they were getting when they shipped Jorge Soler to Kansas City. If this performance continues, the $10 million the Cubs are paying Davis will be a steal. But he’s only under contract for the remainder of this season, after which he’ll hit the market with (presumably) no questions about his health.
Davis will be a couple months older than Mark Melancon was when he signed a four-year, $62 million contract this past offseason, but he figures to command something in that neighborhood as the top closer on the market (assuming the Red Sox pick up Craig Kimbrel’s team option). Are the Cubs willing to pay $16-20 million AAV for a closer on the wrong side of 30? Doubtful.
Not only will they need to maintain or rebuild the rotation following this season, there’s also the matter of extensions for Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, et al. The Cubs can’t just stockpile cash to use for a rainy day, nor can they go making it rain money just because they’ve got it. Not on a closer anyway, not when they’ve got a guy waiting in the wings who earns a mere fraction of what they’d have to pay on the open market.
We’ve all seen over the past couple seasons that Carl Edwards Jr. has got the stuff to shut down opponents in big situations. That fastball/curve combo is isn’t a rheostat, it’s a straight-up breaker switch. When he can fire darts in there at 96 and then change things up with that bender…whoo. But it’s not just the change in eye level and velocity that has led to this recent success, it’s that he’s finally locating properly.
Edwards began his professional career as a starter, but concerns with his health and durability pushed him to the bullpen on a full-time basis in 2015. His struggles to adapt to the new role were evident in a walk rate that hovered around 6.75 batters per 9 innings across the top two levels of the minors. He got a cup of coffee with the Cubs that season, though numbers from 4.2 innings of work really don’t tell us anything.
Those aforementioned concerns, not to mention an eye toward bigger things in the future, forced the Cubs to limit Edwards last season as they let him acclimate to more high-pressure appearances. While there were the occasional hiccups here and there, the Stringbean Slinger handled his increasing role with aplomb, eventually earning Joe Maddon’s faith in pretty much every situation.
That faith has been galvanized this season, as Edwards has walked only four — two of which came in an appearance against the Dodgers in which he failed to record an out — and has allowed a measly two hits across 10 innings.
“He’ll be a closer someday, there’s no doubt,” Maddon told Patrick Mooney and the assembled media prior to Monday’s stinker of a game. “His stuff plays against righties and lefties and he knows how to pitch. This guy can do several different things.”
That part about being able to pitch to both righties and lefties is really key, as you can’t lean on a guy with big platoon splits to fill a set role at the end of games. Lefties possess only a .181 wOBA against Edwards, while a .208 from righties shows that they don’t perform much better. And that latter number is bolstered by a walk rate against righties that’s more than twice as high (14.2% vs. 6.3%) as it is against lefties.
Those values are skewed further this season, mainly due to the free passes against the Dodgers, but we should see things even out as the innings pile up and the control remains steady. And if Edwards is able to do that while staying healthy and continuing to prove himself in high-leverage situations, he’s the clear heir apparent to Davis in the 9th inning.
Edwards slotting into that role in 2018 affords the Cubs all kinds of flexibility from a payroll perspective. He’s got two more seasons before he’s even arbitration eligible, after which the team still has three additional years of control. Even with the hefty raises that figure to come along with his ascension to a high-value spot on the staff, Edwards will be a bargain when compared to the salary and/or trade costs of acquiring a closer.
A lot can happen between now and next season, though, so it’s more than little presumptuous to be planning all the way out to 2023. Still, you can’t help but feel great about the future when you see the easy gas and the knee-buckling hook from the stoic stick-man. Perhaps even more than the fateful lighting being loosed from his right arm, the real key is what’s between Edwards’ ears. Mental toughness is huge for a closer, and the only thing flappable about this kid is his jersey in the lake breeze.
Rather than wrap with my own pronouncements and prognostications, I’d like to reach out to you, dear reader. What are your thoughts on the closer role moving forward? Vote below and/or leave some thoughts in the comments.[poll id=”23″]