Go back in time a year. Wade Davis is the ace closer for the Royals, who have just won the World Series on his back. He turned in one of the best postseason performances we’ve ever seen — over 10.2 innings, he allowed zero runs, with twice as many strikeouts (18) as total baserunners (nine). The cyborg looked like it would keep Kansas City chugging for years to come.
Now turn the clock back a year further. Jorge Soler is a thrilling young outfielder for the Cubs, themselves one of the more intriguing clubs in baseball. He left the minor leagues in flames — battering his way to a .340/.432/.700 line across three levels — and in a 97-PA cup of coffee, he hit .292/.330/.573 for a 148 wRC+. The 22-year-old wunderkind would soon become a consensus top-25 prospect.
It’s now 2016, and while these players — whom the Royals and Cubs just traded for each other — still have illustrious potential, it’s diminished considerably for each of them. Davis, the probable new closer for the Cubs, has seen his peripherals fall off, while Soler has labored at the major-league level and dealt with injuries galore. Compared to where each player used to be, we could view this as a buy-low deal for both sides.
Let’s start with Davis, the clear headliner of the trade. To belabor the aforementioned metaphor, the cyborg started to malfunction a bit in 2016 — he took two trips to the DL with a forearm strain, the latter of which sidelined him for the entire month of August. When he did make it to the diamond, his velocity couldn’t reach its past standards:
His fastball lost a full mph compared to its 2014 levels; his curveball, nearly 1.5 mph. And to compound that velocity loss, he also had some trouble finding the zone. That leads us to this equally perturbing trend:
That’s...not encouraging! While Davis still excelled at preventing runs this season — his 43 ERA- put him in the top 10 in the majors — he lost a ton of strikeouts from the prior two years, and his walk rate went up as well. That all adds up to an inflated DRA and cFIP, which, most likely, will portend more runs allowed for Davis.
A diminished Davis is still a top-flight reliever. With Aroldis Chapman signing for $87 million in free agency, the Cubs will be more than happy to pay Davis’s $10 million 2017 salary as the last leg of his ridiculously team-friendly extension. And if he can get healthy from here, maybe that velocity will come back, and he’ll give hitters nightmares like he used to.
But two dark clouds could blot out that silver lining. Davis is 31, and reliever velocity tends to decline pretty steadily after age 28. And for pitchers, nothing predicts future injuries better than past injuries — meaning if a hurler gets hurt once, he’s much more likely to get hurt again. Davis’s best days may be behind him, and while that doesn’t make him a liability, or even a mediocre pitcher, it definitely caps his potential.
Unlike Davis, Soler doesn’t have much of a major-league track record; that’s why he’ll head to the (eventually) rebuilding club in this deal. He’s also considerably younger, turning 25 in February, and thus theoretically finds himself on the right side of the aging curve. So he could still fill a hole in the Royals outfield and become a dependable everyday player.
Yet two years removed from his dominance on the farm, Soler hasn’t accomplished a whole lot. During those years, his .253/.328/.413 triple-slash at the Show translated to a pedestrian 100 wRC+, and his minor-league production — a .160/.338/.160 batting line — was even worse. This is a far cry from the monstrous debut Soler had. What happened since then?
Even more so than Davis, Soler has struggled to stay healthy. He went to the DL in June and August of last year with an ankle sprain and oblique strain, respectively. This season, a hamstring malady malady forced him onto the DL in June. That depressed his playing time significantly — across 2015 and 2016, he tallied a total of 733 plate appearances over all levels of play — and could have harmed his output.
Injuries can’t account for everything, though. The Cubs haven’t given Soler a great deal of playing time because, well, he hasn’t earned the time to play. While poor health hasn’t helped Soler hit at a higher level, the weaknesses in his profile — primarily with regards to plate discipline — don’t help his cause.
Soler's issue isn't pitch judgment, per se. Out of 251 players with at least 650 plate appearances in that span, he ranks 71st with a 68.3 percent Z-Swing rate. And he doesn’t just hack at everything, either: His O-Swing rate of 30.1 percent is the 139th-highest in that sample. In other words, Soler has some idea of which pitches are balls and which are strikes, and he swings accordingly.
The trouble starts when Soler does swing, because far too often, he misses. Over that period, he’s whiffed at 14.9 percent of all pitches he’s seen, which is lower than only 14 other players. You can survive with an elevated swinging-strike rate — NL MVP and Soler’s former teammate Kris Bryant had a 14.7 percent clip in that same span. Bryant made solid contact 39.1 percent of the time, though, which placed him in the top 30 in ISO and BABIP. Soler’s hard-hit rate of 34.2 percent didn’t give him the average or the power to negate the strikeouts his whiff rate brought.
And that doesn't even get into the other side of the ball, where Soler has put together an expansive lowlight reel. His defensive resume includes everything from Nelson Cruz-esque misplays...
...to brash overthrows...
...to balls that Soler just didn’t put enough effort into:
Cubs skipper John Madden said last year that Soler needed “some work with his technique,” which, lol. Over his three years and 1,442.2 innings on the North Side, the outfielder cost his team 12 runs by DRS, 8.8 runs by UZR, and 12.7 runs by FRAA. Getting healthy would help him improve that, but when you’re such a poor outfielder that you could help your squad by moving to DH*, your ceiling is probably pretty low.
*The positional adjustment for corner outfielders is -7.5 runs per 600 plate appearances; for DHs, it’s -17.5 runs per 600 PAs. So an outfielder who’s worth less than -10 defensive runs per season should probably not stay an outfielder for long.
In Soler, the Royals get a hitter who won’t become a free agent for five more years; that’s a pretty decent asset in exchange for a player with one year left (and Davis wasn’t the only Royal for whom that was the case). Kansas City can afford to stick him in its minor-league system to see if he can make more contact and stay on the field. Even that, however, might not help him become the elite player he showed us he could be. Injuries and swings-and-misses are a helluva drug.
Davis and Soler, in their respects, remain talented players. Davis can still do this, and Soler can still do this. With that said, the Cubs and Royals should keep in mind — and presumably will keep in mind — that neither of them has the luster they once did. In an offseason chock full of challenge trades, this is more of a challenge to the players: Can Davis and Soler succeed in their new cities, or will they continue to regress?