While Kris Bryant has been the focal point of most Cubs trade speculation this winter, MLB Network’s Jon Heyman tweets that right-hander Yu Darvish’s name “seems out there in trade talks,” though he cautions that it could be little more than a matter of due diligence as the Cubs keep an open mind. Heyman adds that he spoke to a pair of executives with two other clubs, neither of whom expects a trade to ultimately come together.
All of that said, it’s worth breaking down the Darvish scenario a bit more extensively. First and foremost, it’s not surprising to see Darvish or any other high-priced Cubs player pop up on the rumor circuit. Changes to the team’s core looked inevitable heading into the current offseason, given the dwindling control remaining for so many key players. The Cubs already non-tendered Kyle Schwarber, and ESPN’s Buster Olney reported in mid-November that the Cubs were at least open to talks on “almost” any veteran player on their club. Even prior to that, MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes laid out the possibility of a Darvish trade in his Offseason Outlook for the Cubs.
Cubs owner Tom Ricketts has publicly lamented his lack of available resources, even prior to the Covid-19 pandemic and the associated revenue losses. While few fans sympathize much with Ricketts’ efforts to explain the plight of the misunderstood MLB owner, his repeated comments are still notable and have been reflected in the team’s actions — or lack thereof. The Cubs’ lone major signing dating back to the 2018-19 offseason has been an in-season deal for Craig Kimbrel, which only came to pass after Chicago unexpectedly was spared some of its commitment to Ben Zobrist after the infielder/outfielder left the club for personal reasons. Beyond that, the Cubs’ combined spending in the 2018-19 and 2019-20 offseasons totaled just $14.25MM.
Given that context and the fact that Darvish is owed $62MM over the final three seasons of his contract, it’s only natural that the team would at least entertain offers on the righty. However, while the Darvish deal looked like a regrettable, potential albatross contract after an injury-ruined 2018 season, that’s no longer the case — and the asking price in any trade talks would surely reflect the right-hander’s turnaround.
Since that dismal first year of the contract, Darvish has not only bounced back but pitched at the most effective levels of his MLB career. Over his past 32 starts, Darvish has tallied 199 2/3 innings of 2.84 ERA/3.04 FIP ball with averages of 11.5 strikeouts and 2.4 walks per nine frames. He was dominant in 2020, posting a career-best 2.01 ERA with a 93-to-14 K/BB ratio in 76 innings en route to a second-place finish in NL Cy Young voting. Darvish also has a 12-team no-trade clause, which could throw a wrench into various potential destinations.
A trade of Darvish would serve as not only a means of shedding payroll at a time when ownership has clearly been looking to curb spending, but also as a means of adding controllable just as the team’s World Series core is on the cusp of disbanding due to free agency. It’s easy to imagine any package for Darvish beginning with an MLB-ready starter who is controlled for five-plus seasons, with multiple quality prospects and/or young big leaguers then being added to the equation. Removing the $23MM owed to Darvish in 2021 from the payroll could also free up some resources to address other needs via free agency or trade.
Viewed through that lens, a Darvish trade seems practical, if somewhat painful for a club that has been a regular presence at or near the top of the NL Central over the past half decade. On the other hand, that track record of winning and a still-talented core underline the argument against trading Darvish away.
The Cubs may have been bounced from the postseason in surprising fashion by an upstart Marlins club in 2020, but this team still finished 34-26 and won the National League Central. Schwarber’s non-tender aside, the majority of that division-winning core is intact, and rebounds for some combination of Cubs stars who struggled — Bryant, Javier Baez, Anthony Rizzo — should be expected.
Trading Darvish unequivocally weakens a roster that still looks capable of contending in a division that no team seems to want to seize. The Pirates are rebuilding. The Cardinals are paring back payroll and mulling whether they can retain icons Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright. The Reds have cut costs considerably in the bullpen and are at least listening to offers on their top starters. The Brewers aren’t expected to spend aggressively.
Some degree of turnover and change on the Chicago roster still seems quite plausible, but it’s also possible that a continued lack of aggression in St. Louis, Cincinnati and Milwaukee could motivate the Cubs to keep the bulk of their core intact, recognizing that the NL Central appears to be largely up for grabs. The Cubs currently project to carry a payroll of about $157MM, per Roster Resource’s Jason Martinez, with only about $164MM of luxury-tax considerations on the books at the moment.