Our long National League nightmare is over.
On Saturday afternoon, Ken Rosenthal tweeted that the Cubs had signed free agent ace Yu Darvish to a six-year, $126 million contract, or $21 million in average annual value, breaking the months-long freeze on free agent contracts. There are incentives attached to the deal that could escalate its value to about $150 million, but they require Darvish to bring home multiple Cy Young awards—an unlikely event. Darvish also receives an opt out and and no-trade protection. Other reports suggest that the Cubs’ offer was not the only one that Darvish had received in that general area of years and dollars. The Brewers and Twins are known to have made offers, and earlier reports were that the Milwaukee offer was better than Chicago’s. The Dodgers, to whom Darvish expressed a desire to return, also offered the righty a contract in this vicinity, but Darvish ultimately chose to join the Cubs.
The former Rangers ace joins a formidable rotation, now consisting of Jose Quintana, Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester, and Tyler Chatwood. Mike Montgomery is bumped to the bullpen, thickening an impressive unit that should offer more consistency than 2017’s rough and tumble ‘pen. Darvish tossed 186 ⅔ innings between Texas and Los Angeles last season, to the tune of a sparkling 3.01 DRA and 5.2 WARP. On the rate stats front, Darvish dazzled with a 27.2 percent strikeout rate and 7.6 percent walk rate, the former mark good for 12th among starters. The Cubs are getting a starter fresh off another impressive season.
But Darvish’s 2017 isn’t the only year we should look at when determining how good he is. Darvish is one of the best pitchers in the majors, and has been since his 2012 debut. DRA loves Darvish, as he has managed a mark consistently 30-40 percent better than league average in each of his five seasons pitched. His strikeout and walk rates have been excellent throughout his career as well, and while 2017’s strikeout rate was a tick lower than Darvish’s best seasons, his walk rate has improved in almost every year since 2012. The Cubs signed a pitcher at the height of his powers, and although Darvish will turn 32 in August, he figures to carry his ace status for at least a few more years.
An important caveat with Darvish is his spotty health history. Darvish has only pitched five major-league seasons, despite signing an initial six-year contract in 2012, due to Tommy John surgery that kept him sidelined for all of 2015. The following year, Darvish was limited to 100 innings, and the year prior to Tommy John he tossed only 144. However, the Cubs now have some rotation depth that they would not have possessed had they not signed Darvish—Mike Montgomery can fill in for any injured pitcher in 2018, and Adbert Alzolay waits in the wings at Iowa. The odds are that Darvish will miss some time, perhaps significant time, in the course of the first few years of this deal, but the Cubs are positioned to weather such an event.
An initial look at the Cubs’ 2018 payroll obligations is probably useful. The Cubs are still around $10 million below the luxury tax threshold, so they could add either a free agent before the season begins or keep the cushion for a mid-season acquisition and still stay under that mark. Of course, the Cubs now figure to be close to tied with the Dodgers as favorites to win the NL pennant, so the luxury tax should not concern them.
This also leads us to an assessment of Darvish’s deal, which is decidedly light. Two offseasons ago, Johnny Cueto, a younger but slightly less talented pitcher, received a six-year, $130 million deal with San Francisco, and Darvish fell a few million short of that mark. Darvish also had to wait until just days before Spring Training begins to sign his deal, and signs are present indicating that the Cubs did not budge much from the initial deal they offered. Most sources predicted a six- or seven-year deal in the $150-180 million range for the right-hander, and this deal falls considerably short of that mark.
One thing is for sure, though: the Cubs are better today than they were yesterday, by a significant margin. The Brewers and Cardinals are now playing defense again, after aggressive and impressive offseasons from both, and the Cubs should be solidly in the 90-plus-win range once again. Plus, the Dodgers lost their second-best bullpen arm and their second-best starter, who now both play on the North Side. It’s a win-win-win for the Cubs, and Darvish will likely have an opportunity to pitch in the postseason versus his former team. Anything short of that would be a disappointment.
Lead photo courtesy Dennis Wierzbicki—USA Today Sports