'Extremely upset' Davis ready to rebound
Rox reliever is critical piece of club's plans to contend
DENVER -- Rockies manager Bud Black issued Wade Davis an invitation wrapped in a challenge. But Black didn’t hand back Davis his job as closer.
“I want that to happen,” Black said.
The first two years of Davis’ three-year, $52 million contract have been a dichotomy. In 2018, he led the National League in saves with a club-record 43 and was counted as a key reason for Colorado reaching the postseason. Last year, Davis' 8.65 ERA in 50 outings was second-highest in MLB history among relievers with at least that many appearances (behind only Vic Darensborough of the 1999 Marlins), and Davis was replaced by Scott Oberg in early August.
Davis’ plight mirrors that of the Rockies, who went 71-91 in 2019 after postseason trips in each of the previous two years.
While other clubs -- especially National League West rivals Arizona and San Diego -- have made significant offseason moves, the Rockies have made no trades or Major League free-agent signings because past big-money moves have inflated payroll. One of those deals belongs to Davis, 34 -- $17 million in salary this year plus a $1 million buyout on a $15 million mutual option for 2021 (which becomes a player option if Davis finishes 30 games).
It’s more than just making a contract look good in the end.
The bullpen’s ability to turn tight games into wins is arguably the second-most important key to a turnaround (behind a rebound from a starting rotation that took a step back). An effective Davis could help the Rockies surprise those who believe their quiet offseason has left them behind.
If a team is going to throw their aspirations of contending onto the shoulders of players, it’s good to have one like Davis -- who has made six trips to the postseason, and was on the mound when the Royals clinched the 2015 World Series.
“I believe Wade will bounce back because of his history,” Rockies pitching coach Steve Foster said. “He had a poor year. But he had several great years before last year. I look forward to seeing his arrival to [Spring Training] and the solid season he will be resolute to have. He’s a competitor with a terrific track record.
“I trust him.”
The Rockies need Davis as much as Foster trusts him.
Oberg performed well throughout the season, including as closer, before missing the end of the year with blood clots in his right arm. With Oberg, owner of a new three-year, $13 million contract, expected back healthy, the Rockies could be in good hands at the end of games, provided Davis rebounds.
The rest of the ‘pen is full of either possibilities or questions, all depending on 2020 performances.
With the Rockies missing Davis and Oberg last September, hard throwers Jario Díaz (a closer candidate if Davis or Oberg can’t grab the job) and Carlos Estévez from the right side, and James Pazos from the left, pitched well enough to earn chances for key roles in 2020.
Since the start of last year, Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich has made quiet, depth-building acquisitions -- Pazos and lefty Tyler Kinley (a waiver claim from the Marlins) on the Major League roster, righties Joe Harvey and Wes Parsons and lefty Phillip Diehl on Minor League deals headed into Spring Training. Lefty Ben Bowden, MLB Pipeline's No. 8 Rockies prospect, could make his mark as well.
High-priced veterans Jake McGee and Bryan Shaw are each in the final year of contracts that also have performance-based options, which has made them hard to trade. So the Rockies need consistent quality from each -- something that has been elusive during their time with the club.
Davis regaining form would allow Black the opportunity to juggle his bullpen to have the best relievers pitching at key times.
“Wade was extremely upset with how he threw the ball the second half,” Black said. “He’s really committed to turning that around. The track record is pretty strong. We’ll see how that plays.”
As last season ended, Davis -- by then seeing little game action -- began working on 2020 by correcting delivery flaws. He also offered information to shorten the learning curve of less-experienced relievers. Estévez, for example, recalled borrowing Davis’ thought process and defied the taboo of right-on-right changeups to power-hitters during a strikeout of the Padres’ Manny Machado.
“He said, “Bro, have you looked into Machado’s swing path?'" Estévez said. “I knew he was asking because he saw something. But I didn’t want to talk about it because he might have said, ‘Oh, you’re crazy.’ But I was like, 'I think I can get him with a changeup down and in.’
“I went into the game, two strikes and he hits four foul balls. Then, 2-2 count, I threw a changeup and he swung through it. [Davis] is quiet, but when he’s got a thought he needs to share, he’ll do it right away.”
Last season, Davis’ average four-seam fastball velocity -- 96.5 mph as late as 2015 -- dipped to 93.2 mph, per Statcast. His curveball and cutter lost bite and location, as well. The biggest problem was control -- Davis walked a career-worst 6.1 per nine innings.
Foster said that Davis has worked on staying taller in his windup and keeping his motion more linear toward the plate, instead of rotational toward first base. No matter the velocity, if Davis is solid mechanically, improvement should come.
“It doesn’t change my view of myself,” he said of last season. “I have full confidence in this never happening again.”