After a bounce-back showing in the second half of the 2019 season, right-hander Yu Darvish could emerge as a winter trade chip for the Cubs. Chicago has “received inquiries” regarding Darvish, Joel Sherman of the New York Post writes. It doesn’t appear a trade is in the works right now, but as Sherman notes, that could change when the best remaining free-agent starters (Madison Bumgarner and Hyun-Jin Ryu, for example) come off the board.
A year ago at this time, the idea of a Darvish trade would’ve been unthinkable. At that point, the former Ranger and Dodger was coming off a brutal, injury-ravaged first season with the Cubs, who inked him to a six-year, $126MM guarantee entering 2018. Darvish totaled a mere eight starts and 40 innings that year, when he put up career worsts in ERA (4.95), FIP (4.86) and walks per nine (4.73).
Last season began in similarly rough fashion for Darvish, owner of an ERA upward of 5.00 as late as July 3, but the light bulb went back on thereafter. The 33-year-old ended the summer on a tear, as he posted 124 strikeouts against a paltry seven walks in 88 1/3 innings from July onward. All said, Darvish concluded the campaign with 178 2/3 frames of 3.98 ERA/4.16 FIP ball, 11.54 K/9, 2.82 BB/9 and a 45.5 percent groundball rate (up from 37.6 the previous year). He also managed a career-best swinging-strike percentage (13.4) and tied a personal high in average fastball velocity (94.2 mph). If there’s one major red flag, it’s that Darvish gave up more home runs than ever (1.66 per nine with a 22.8 percent homer-to-fly ball rate), though that was a common theme throughout the league last season.
Despite his late-2019 rebound, Darvish elected against a return to free agency, instead deciding not to opt out of the remaining four years and $81MM on his contract. It was a predictable call, especially considering Darvish has made it clear he has enjoyed his time in Chicago. Still, in a league where Red Sox lefty David Price – despite coming off an injury-plagued season and having three years and $96MM left on his contract – has drawn trade interest, it’s not that surprising teams have eyed Darvish in the wake of his personal renaissance.
Whether the Cubs would deal an integral rotation member like Darvish is unknown, and the fact that his contract includes no-trade rights — complete protection for now, then a dozen teams in 2020 — could complicate matters. However, there has been word that the Cubs would like to cut payroll. As Jason Martinez of Roster Resource estimates, they’re currently set to enter 2020 with a $214MM luxury-tax payroll. In that scenario, the Cubs would be $6MM over the threshold, and that’s without having made any clear improvements yet this offseason.
Furthermore, president of baseball operations Theo Epstein is no doubt frustrated after a season that saw the Cubs miss the playoffs. The possibility of a shakeup has led to trade speculation surrounding other Cubs notables such as Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez and Willson Contreras. So, any number of drastic roster-altering scenarios might be on the table (perhaps including a Darvish deal), but Epstein did say this week that the Cubs currently have “the makings of a very good team,” one that has “a chance to win a division.” On paper, getting rid of Darvish could decrease their odds of doing that.