Is $126 million in February any different from $126 million in November? After months of waiting and speculation, Yu Darvish signed with the club many predicted he would end up with at the beginning of the offseason. The six-year, $126 million agreement with the Chicago Cubs does fall short of the original estimates Darvish would receive — six years, and approximately $160 million — so that’s evidence that money is tight this offseason.
The move obviously makes the Cubs better. It pushes Mike Montgomery back into the sixth starter/long reliever role and helps bank against further regression from Jon Lester and the injury risks for Kyle Hendricks and Tyler Chatwood. With a top six that also includes Jose Quintana, the Cubs’ rotation now projects right up there alongside those of the Dodgers, Nationals and Diamondbacks for the best in the National League.
Dan Szymborski projects Darvish to be worth 3.9 WAR in 2018, his same total as 2017, although I think there’s some chance he outperforms that as he moves away from the American League and a tough home park in Texas. Darvish’s strikeout rate jumped up from 26.2 percent with the Rangers to 30.2 percent with the Dodgers, with a lower walk rate as well. Szymborski also projects Darvish to earn back that $126 million, with a projected value of $150 million over the six years:
ZiPS for Darvish with the Cubs. ZiPS overshot on the contract this time. pic.twitter.com/jhngNz9NWz
— Dan Szymborski (@DSzymborski) February 10, 2018
Now that the top free-agent pitcher is finally off the board, let’s examine some of the ripple effects.
What do the Twins and Brewers do now? Minnesota and Milwaukee were reportedly very in on Darvish — maybe it was that sixth year that pushed the Cubs over the top — so we know both teams want to upgrade the rotation. FanGraphs currently projects the Twins with the 23rd-best rotation and the Brewers with the 20th-best. In theory, this could push them to Jake Arrieta, Alex Cobb or Lance Lynn, the three best starting pitchers remaining on the market.
It doesn’t, however, necessarily mean they want to spend the money on any of those three guys. Arrieta’s asking price, coming off a season in which he threw just 168 innings (down from 229 in 2016 and 197 in 2017), may still be too high, especially for these two franchises.
Lynn is a guy the analysts in the front offices don’t like. He had a 3.43 ERA with the Cardinals over 186 innings in his return from Tommy John surgery, but the peripherals are nowhere near that good. He had a 4.82 FIP thanks to a mediocre K rate and 27 home runs allowed, and he ranked 113th out of 134 pitchers with at least 100 innings in strikeout-to-walk ratio. On the other hand, he has kept his ERA below 4.00 every season of his career, he’s a sinker/slider guy who has made that repertoire work, and other than his missed injury season, he has been very durable. For a team like the Twins that has no stability behind Jose Berrios and Ervin Santana (who will miss April after finger surgery), getting 30 starts from a league-average pitcher would be a valuable addition.
What’s next for the Dodgers? The speculation was that Darvish took so long to sign because he wanted to return to the Dodgers and that the Dodgers were interested but had to clear payroll — in the form of Matt Kemp — to fit Darvish under the luxury-tax threshold. The only way to trade Kemp would be to include some prospects to entice a team to take on some significant portion of the $42 million owed Kemp the next two seasons, but no taker was found.
I don’t think this means the Dodgers dip into free agency with another starter. They’re already close enough to the threshold that signing Lynn or Cobb would push them over that number. Plus, it’s not clear those two or even Arrieta are upgrades over what they have in the likes of Kenta Maeda, Hyun-Jin Ryu and rookie Walker Buehler at the back of the rotation. Plus, the Dodgers’ front office is still feeling the burn from the Scott Kazmir and Brandon McCarthy contracts, so a pitcher like Cobb, who has missed two of the past three seasons, isn’t going to appeal to them. Unless they want to package Buehler and other prospects for a guy like Chris Archer, I think their rotation is set.
The Dodgers are big enough favorites in the NL West that they should play out the first three months and reassess their needs in July. They may end up needing to upgrade the bullpen more than the rotation anyway.
Do the Cardinals make a countermove? The Cardinals have added one impact bat in Marcell Ozuna, but they still lag behind the Cubs in the projections. The bullpen is the obvious place of need, with Greg Holland the big name out there, but I’m not sure I’d want to throw $50 million at him. They should use their prospect depth to acquire somebody like Tampa Bay’s Alex Colome. There will also be relievers available at the trade deadline.
Still, adding a bullpen arm may not make a big difference anyway. The St. Louis pen actually ranked seventh in the majors in ERA in 2017. It wasn’t very clutch, ranking 18th in win probability added, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be mediocre in the clutch again.
Really, the best bet for the Cards to play with the Cubs is to have one of the young starters, Luke Weaver or Jack Flaherty, emerge as a solid No. 2 behind Carlos Martinez, or — less likely — they get a big bounce back from Adam Wainwright.
Where does Arrieta end up? It’s difficult to find a landing spot for him. Two possibilities: the Phillies and Nationals. The Phillies have hinted that they might play in the veteran-pitcher market, and Arrieta would be the perfect gamble for them, especially if they can get him a shorter-term deal. I saw somebody throw out the idea of a three-year, $100 million contract. Given what Darvish just signed for, they probably don’t have to go that high, maybe four years and $100 million, or three years for $75 million, but given how little long-term money they have on the books, betting on Arrieta could work.
The other possibility is the Nationals. Scott Boras has leaned on the Nationals in the past to get his clients signed, and Washington does have a hole in the back of the rotation (A.J. Cole is the current No. 5 starter and there isn’t much behind him). A playoff rotation of Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, Arrieta and Gio Gonzalez may finally get the Nats past the Division Series and deeper into the postseason.