The Chicago Cubs figure to be fairly active in free agency this offseason, so it’s worth taking a look at some of the players who could be of interest to the team.
These players present possible fits for the Cubs, at a range of possible costs and talent levels.
Performance in 2017
Despite getting – somewhat infamously – blown up (twice) in the World Series, Yu Darvish posted another quality season in the big leagues, by the numbers:
Although the ground ball rate was pretty low this season, Darvish’s fly ball rate (although still high) was only slightly above average. Though, to be fair, he posted 40.0%+ fly ball rates in each of the last two seasons, so he’s not exactly an ideal juiced-ball era pitcher. But that’s a really narrow (if not unfair) view of him.
After all, Darvish paired weak grounder/fly ball rates with plenty of soft contact, the right amount of hard contact, a high strikeout rate, and a low walk rate. All things considered, he was one of the top 20 pitchers in baseball this season, and basically has been since he broke into the league back in 2012 (19.0 WAR – 18th in MLB during that stretch).
Performance Before 2017
But despite being one of the top 20 or so pitchers in baseball over the past six seasons, Darvish isn’t really a true “ace,” as you might think of the term. He might get paid like one this winter, because of his age and relatively consistent track record of success, but he’s a clear step away from being one of the top ten pitchers in baseball.
But don’t let that discourage you, although Darvish’s first two seasons in the the U.S. were easily his best (combined 9.1 fWAR), he has posted a K-rate over 30% and a walk rate below 8.0% twice since. Moreover, batters have had a really tough time finding hits against Darvish for his career (.226 AVG), and that’s a pretty impressive trifecta.
I know we love the new style of pitchers (lots of grounders, tons of weak contact) given the era, but there’s nothing wrong with a guy who strikes batters out, rarely gives up free passes, and doesn’t allow many hits. Sometimes, the old way is a good way, too.
Projection for 2018 and Beyond
At just 31 years old, there’s not much of a reason to expect an immediate and dramatic regression in Darvish’s performance. His fastball velocity (94.7 MPH) remained right in line with his 2016 mark, and was even faster than his career mark. He was also healthy enough to pitch more innings this year than he has in any other season since 2013.
Now, with that said, Darvish does use that velocity quite a bit, which means that, unlike a guy who’s already pitched through a drop or who never relied on elite velocity, Darvish could take a big step backwards when that velocity does finally drop. But, again, there’s no reason to believe that’s happening in the next, say, two or three years, when he’d be most useful.
Possible Contract/Existing Rumors
At FanRag, Jon Heyman and his expert each believe Darvish will land the biggest free agent pitching contract of the winter. Heyman’s expert believes it’ll be six years and $155M (a.k.a the Jon Lester deal) while Heyman, himself, thinks he’ll cost just a little less ($144M).
MLB Trade Rumors thinks it’ll cost a bit more (6 years, $160M), and, for what it’s worth, projected him to land with the Cubs.
The Cubs are believed to be interested in Darvish at some level, but it’s not at all clear that they’re willing to ink up another monster pitching contract at this time.
Like so many of the pitchers we’ve examined in this series over the years, Darvish was a recipient of Tommy John surgery. He had surgery in March of 2015 and missed all of that season and parts of 2016.
But again, he came back very strong this year and threw plenty of healthy and effective innings.
In terms of “other considerations,” it’s worth pointing out that the Cubs were initially interested in Darvish back when he first was made available to Major League clubs, though they obviously lost out on the sweepstakes.
Other than that, I’ll acknowledge that, yes, Darvish was blown up in the World Series this year, but given everything we know about his 2015 surgery, how hard it is to pitch at the end of a long year, and how good of an offense the Astros have, it just doesn’t move the needle for me. I know it’ll scare people, and could lower his contract demands, but those two starts alone don’t push Darvish away from me.
Fit for Cubs
On a superficial level, Darvish obviously makes as much sense for the Cubs as any team in baseball. They are in the middle of a highly competitive window, have some money to spend, play in a winnable division, and just lost a top of the rotation starter in Jake Arrieta (plus another in John Lackey).
And you know what, maybe there isn’t another level. The fit is clearly there.
Is Darvish the only way to go this offseason? Of course not. The Cubs could mix and match middle tier free agents like Alex Cobb or Tyler Chatwood with a trade for a top of the rotation starter, but that’s obviously a lot more difficult to pull off.
If the Cubs can get Darvish while keeping enough powder (and luxury tax cap space) dry for the 2018-2019 offseason (cough, Bryce Harper, cough), then a deal could make even more sense. Is that realistic, though? Especially with continued arbitration raises on the way for in-house players? That’s harder to see.
In the end, I expect the Cubs to monitor Darvish’s market closely, stay in touch enough to discern his demands, and see if a reasonable deal presents itself. I’m not sure they will be aggressive pursuers, however. The front office has made fairly plain that they are keeping future years in mind when making free agent decisions this offseason, which certainly implies that signing a monster contract like Darvish’s may not be a priority for this offseason.