The Cubs have snagged a trio of pitchers on the free agent market in the past week, adding Tyler Chatwood on a three-year, $38 million deal, Brandon Morrow on a two-year, $21 million contract, and Drew Smyly on a two-year deal. Morrow figures to receive a shot at the vacant closer’s role, while Chatwood assumes the fifth-starter spot, and Smyly serves as high-upside rotation insurance while he recovers from an elbow injury that will keep him out for the first half of 2018. Of course, we knew the Cubs would need to add three-plus pitchers this offseason (they will add more bullpen depth, as well), but a top rotation spot remains very fill-able. Enter Darvish.
Position: Right-handed starting pitcher
How He Fits: Darvish is the best starting pitcher available for only money this offseason, unless you were convinced that Shohei Ohtani would immediately be an MLB ace—entirely possible, but less of sure thing than the perennially great Darvish. If you’re the Cubs, or any team with a hole in the starting rotation, Darvish fits with your roster. He makes every team better, and any injury or durability concerns that Darvish carries also come with the other starters available.
First, what Darvish does well. He’s a dominant strikeout pitcher, usually hovering around a 30 percent strikeout rate, and his walk rate has been below league average since his return from Tommy John surgery in 2016. He’s arguably the best Nippon Professional Baseball alumnus to pitch in the majors, and he’s a well-known quantity with four All-Star appearances and two top-ten Cy Young finishes in five seasons.
The righty boasts a classic starter’s repertoire: three types of fastballs, a range of breaking ball movement and speeds, and a changeup for flavor. What’s rather incredible about Darvish, though, is that hitters swung at his five primary offerings, plus his change, at nearly identical rates in 2017. All induce swings between 40 and 50 percent of the time, while his cutter, curve, and slider got over 30 percent whiffs per swing. Scanning Darvish’s preferred pitch usage reveals what one would assume from these rates; he sprinkles in all of his pitches versus both righties and lefties, with the only marked difference being the deployment of his cutter more often versus left-handers. That’s a strong asset, and one which has produced 1021 strikeouts in only 832 ⅓ career innings.
So, he’s good. We know this. He would also slot perfectly near the top of the Cubs’ rotation, which currently features a trio of unique aces in Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester, and Jose Quintana. Adding Darvish would propel the Cubs back into the discussion of best starting rotations, and his power righty profile differentiates him from Hendricks and the pair of lefties.
Why It Won’t Work: Money. There’s no other reason for the Cubs to pass on Darvish, which, for a team that has a starting pitching need and a ripe contention window, is frustrating. The additions of Chatwood, Smyly, and Morrow eat up about $24.5 million of the Cubs’ 2018 payroll, leaving somewhere between $20 million and $30 million before the team hits the luxury tax threshold. One can gripe about dishing out so much money to three oft-injured players. One can express concern about Morrow’s short-lived track record as an elite reliever. One should be skeptical that the Cubs are counting on Chatwood to replicate his numbers away from Coors Field. But addressing two major concerns while spending the amount that they did is savvy, despite quibbles over the extent to which the three do address the Cubs’ problems.
Could the Cubs nab Darvish while staying under the luxury tax threshold of $197 million? The last reports on the Cubs’ 2017 tax status were that they managed to fall just shy of the threshold. That means the next time the Cubs do exceed it, they will pay a 20 percent tax, as opposed to 30 percent. Maybe. For a pitcher like Darvish, with injury concerns and an age on the wrong side of 30, a shorter contract with higher average annual value is usually advantageous to the club. The Cubs probably can’t do that. $30 million AAV will put them over $200 million, force them to pay the 20 percent tax, and subject them to the necessary draft restrictions. The Cubs could get creative in structuring such a contract, backloading it and offering opt-out clauses to sneak under the tax threshold for 2018 before blowing past it in an effort to maximize their chances in 2019 and beyond.
Darvish’s injury history does offer reason for some pause, but Darvish has exceeded the 200-inning mark once in his career, the same as Jake Arrieta. Both marquee starters carry similar qualifications about health and durability, while Darvish figures more likely to continue as a dominant pitcher than Arrieta, who often comes unmoored from his mechanics.
Ultimately, the decision to add Darvish rests on the Cubs’ luxury tax desires and future plans. If the club plans to court Bryce Harper after 2018—and they should—then remaining under the tax threshold for 2018 has obvious advantages. However, even if they don’t decide to offer Harper a $300-400 million contract, the Cubs will likely exceed the tax threshold for 2019. Really, it’s a decision that the billionaire owners of the Cubs must make.
Alternatives: The primary alternative to signing Darvish, and the alternative that most believe the Cubs are entertaining most seriously, is former Tampa Bay righty Alex Cobb. Cobb is several degrees worse than Darvish, slotting in more comfortably in the fourth or fifth spot, and he will garner fewer years and less money. The market for Cobb has long been in development, however, likely indicating a glut of teams interested in the pitcher. The Yankees, the Twins, and many other teams like Cobb as a rotation option, so the four-year, $60 million-ish deal that many expected him to sign might start looking more like 4/$70, or 5/$80.
Would a $16 million AAV contract for Cobb be preferable to a $25 million AAV contract for Darvish? In a word, no. In two words, absolutely not. The alternatives to Darvish are all considerably worse, unless the Cubs desire a reunion with Arrieta. The Cubs’ best options are as follows, then, in order of desirability:
- Trade for a starter.
- Creatively shed $10 million or more in 2018 salary via trade, like the Yankees have done, while signing Darvish.
- Forget about the luxury tax altogether, signing Darvish and paying the penalty.
- Settle for Cobb, or another free agent pitcher, entering 2018 with an appreciably worse rotation.
Will the Ricketts family improve the club and better their chances of winning another World Series in 2018, or will they balk at paying the tax and gamble on big rebounds from key players?
Lead photo courtesy Jayne Kamin—USA Today Sports