Yu Darvish has become a central figure in the Cubs’ offseason pitching pursuits, as much in our minds as in reality. He’s a big name with a big arm, and if the Cubs seriously have a shot at landing him on a reasonable deal, that’s plenty reason to be excited.
The relationship between that pursuit and the Cubs’ prior attachment to free agent Alex Cobb has always been interesting, with a number of reports suggesting what you’ve probably pieced together on your own: if Cobb is seeking a contract outside the comfort zone of the Cubs so far this offseason, there’s little reason for the Cubs not to seriously entertain going after Darvish.
Jon Heyman adds a little more information to that line of thinking, reporting that “Cobb was the natural fit, but apparently they are apart on the price. Cobb, represented by the same group, likely sees Mike Leake ($80 million, five years) as a comp and is thought to have been asking for about $20 million a year.”
When the rumors of Cobb seeking $20 million per year were circulating, I offered Leake is a comp for Cobb … but I offered as a problematic one, together with other issues with that price tag:
But there are only 13 pitchers in all of baseball making a $20 million AAV. Now, we know that the market is uneven because of team control, extensions, and arbitration, so the top 13 salaries don’t go to the top 13 pitchers, but … come on. The guys above $20 million who received those deals in free agency are Johnny Cueto, Jordan Zimmermann, Jon Lester, Max Scherzer, David Price, and Zack Greinke.
The market always moves north, but a $20 million per year ask by Cobb would be an extreme stretch.
I would have thought the most aggressive he could go with an ask would be something like Jeff Samardzija’s deal (five years, $90 million) or Mike Leake’s deal (five years, $80 million), but even those are imperfect comps, since Samardzija was healthier and more successful, and Leake was healthier and two years younger than Cobb is now. And neither of those guys were tied to draft pick compensation like Cobb is.
Other recent AAVs of note in free agency: Wei-Yin Chen, Scott Kazmir, and Rich Hill got $16M, Ian Kennedy got $14M, Ervin Santana got $13.75M, and Tyler Chatwood just got $12.667M from the Cubs.
So, as I said, seeking Leake’s deal, with its $16 million AAV over five years, is going to be a tough sell for Cobb (and apparently already has been). From a pure performance standpoint, it’s not as if Leake were a star heading into free agency. He’d been worth 8.8 WAR over the preceding five seasons, and was the picture of an average starting pitcher. He did have some encouraging peripherals, however, that suggested he could be a touch better (and, indeed, he has been), and he was only 28 at the time – two years younger than Cobb is now. Leake also contributed a whopping 2.0 WAR in those five seasons at the plate and on defense, a significant sum for a pitcher.
Leake was also healthy enough to take the ball 150 times in those five seasons. Again: he was an average, consistent, durable starting pitcher two years before his 30th birthday. His contract looked about right.
We’re a couple years removed from that deal, so you can budge it up a bit to account for the ever-increasing market price. Cobb, when healthy, has been a more valuable pitcher than Leake was in his typical season before free agency. But the reality is that Cobb, who is two years older than Leake was, has only one season under his belt following Tommy John surgery. The seasons that came before surgery can only tell us so much about the guy Cobb is going to be in 2018 and beyond. Moreover, to the extent peripheral statistics tell us about Cobb’s future vis a vis his results in 2017, you’d be a little nervous about him being able to repeat that 3.66 ERA, especially if he can’t get his changeup back (which he pretty much had to abandon last year).
I could certainly understand why Cobb’s camp would be pushing for a Leake-like deal this offseason, but I could certainly also understand why no team has yet been ready to go to that level.
It remains to be seen just how much Cobb and Darvish will get, but if Cobb’s price tag were five years and $80 million (plus draft pick compensation cost), while Darvish’s were five years and $120 million (no draft pick compensation cost), it would be very difficult to argue with going much harder after Darvish.