Unfortunately for those who follow baseball, the most popular topic in the sport this offseason has been the historically slow free-agent market. Upward of 100 players remain without contracts as spring training nears, but the good news is that the top available veteran finally came off the board Saturday.
The six-year, $126MM agreement the Cubs reached with right-hander Yu Darvish will hopefully lead to a flurry of signings in the near future. Regardless of how the majors’ other 29 teams react, it likely concludes the offseason heavy lifting for Cubs president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer, who have added Darvish, two other starters (Tyler Chatwood and the injured Drew Smyly) and a pair of established relievers (Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek) to a club that ruled the National League Central in each of the previous two years.
Even without Darvish, the Cubs probably would have entered 2018 as the popular pick to win the division, though arguments could have been made for either the rival Brewers or Cardinals to seriously challenge for the crown. Both Milwaukee and St. Louis have been active this offseason after nearly making the playoffs last year. As things stand, though, they’re clearly looking up at a Cubs team with a set rotation (Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana, Jon Lester and Chatwood) and an enviable group of position players. There was speculation earlier in the offseason that Chicago would deal from its lineup and/or farm system to boost the front of its rotation, but bringing in Darvish officially took that possibility out of play.
Along with retaining their position players and prospects, there are other other obvious benefits to picking up Darvish, including that he’s a tremendous starter who should boost the Cubs’ World Series chances in the coming years. The towering flamethrower, who emigrated from Japan in 2012, generally thrived with the Rangers and Dodgers, and there’s little reason to expect he’ll fail in Chicago in the near term. Speaking of the Dodgers, they rank as arguably the prominent concern in the NL for the Cubs (with Darvish’s help, they upended Chicago in the NLCS last season), so pilfering the 31-year-old from LA makes the signing all the more satisfying for Chicago. Plus, because Darvish was part of a midseason trade and wasn’t eligible for an offseason qualifying offer, reeling him in won’t cost the Cubs anything in draft-pick compensation or international bonus pool money.
With Darvish now in the mix, the Cubs will say goodbye to free agent Jake Arrieta, who did receive a QO after the season. When he heads elsewhere, Chicago will nab a pick after the second round of this year’s draft in return. Of course, even though Darvish is more hyped than Arrieta and will likely end up with the bigger guarantee of the two this winter, some may prefer the latter. The soon-to-be 32-year-old Arrieta wasn’t great last season, when he alarmingly lost some velocity, but he has been the more successful of the two in recent years. During his run as a Cub from 2014-17, Arrieta ranked third among starters in ERA (2.67), fifth in fWAR (18.5) and collected a Cy Young Award (2015).
Even if you’d rather have Darvish than Arrieta, the contract comes with some risk for the Cubs (which you’d expect with all big-money accords). Specifically, it’s in the form of an opt-out clause after the 2019 season. If Darvish pitches well enough over the next two years to vacate the deal in favor of another trip to the market, his departure would create a sizable hole for a Chicago team that hasn’t had great success at developing starters during the Epstein era, as Sahadev Sharma of The Athletic recently detailed (subscription required).
On the other hand, should he go downhill during the next two years and stick with his current contract, it could leave the Cubs with another expensive, declining veteran to join Lester (guaranteed $25MM after 2019, including a $10MM buyout for 2021) and outfielder Jason Heyward (guaranteed $86MM from 2020-23). The Cubs took the opt-out risk on Heyward when they signed him to an $184MM contract prior to 2016, when he was one of the sport’s foremost all-around players. Since then, his offensive game has gone in the tank, making it unlikely he’ll leave when he’s allowed to after next season or potentially at the end of the 2019 campaign.
To the Cubs’ credit, the $126MM guarantee looks quite reasonable for Darvish, and at $21MM per year, it’s palatable from a luxury tax standpoint. During a normal winter, Darvish may have ended up with a much wealthier contract. In fact, at the start of what has since turned into a bizarre offseason, MLBTR predicted a six-year, $160MM payday for Darvish, while former FanGraphs writer Dave Cameron forecast an even richer figure ($168MM) over the same term. All things considered, then, it seems the Cubs made out rather well with this move – one they hope will help guide them back to World Series glory in 2018. What are your thoughts?
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