How Will Darvish’s Contract Impact the Cubs’ MiLB Starting Pitching?

When the Cubs signed Yu Darvish to a six-year contract, it filled a void in the starting rotation for 2018 and 2019. In addition, Darvish was given a two-year opt-out clause after 2019. Taking those two things into consideration, I began to think about how the signing and contract could impact several of the Cubs’ minor league pitching prospects and their development.

The Two-year Window
If all goes well and Darvish is lights out for the next two years, he will more than likely opt out of his contract at the end of the 2019 season. Thus, a starting spot will open up for someone for the 2020 season. That’s the earliest a Cubs’ prospect could see the majors unless there’s an injury (God forbid, but very possible) or they need someone to pitch in a doubleheader. Two years for a minor-leaguer does not seem like much time. However, there are several prospects at Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa who are close to being ready now.

Jen-Ho Tseng and Duane Underwood are the first two pitchers to come to mind. Both should begin the year at Iowa. Tseng needs just a little more seasoning, while the 23-year-old Underwood needs to get to about 150 innings to strengthen that arm and improve his command at AAA before he gets to Chicago.

Add in Trevor Clifton. If he figures things out this year, he will be right behind. Thomas Hatch and Alex Lange are two more choices who could possibly be ready by the end of 2019 along with Duncan Robinson and, if he can stay healthy, Oscar de la Cruz. Maybe an arm or two from last year’s plethora of picks from the 2017 draft like Cory Abbott or Keegan Thompson could rise up the system too.

What the Cubs might be hoping for is that one of these guys will blossom into a solid rotation starter to take Darvish’s place by then. They’re nice players, but they are definitely not number one material. All of them fit nicely in as 3s or 4s. Even Adbert Alzolay, who the Cubs built up publicly this off-season, would be hard-pressed to be a top of the rotation type starter to replace Darvish.

The only starter that I currently see that fits that T.O.R. bill is Jose Albertos. Then again, he’s only 19 and hasn’t even pitched full season ball yet. Still, Albertos has a higher ceiling than any of the aforementioned starters. If all goes well, 2020 is a distinct possibility for Jose to get to Chicago.

The Three-year Window
Let’s assume that Darvish stays. Maybe he likes winning, maybe he likes Chicago, maybe he becomes best friends with Willson Contreras. You never know what could happen. Anyway, after the 2020 season Darvish is the only starting pitcher currently signed beyond that season. Anybody that is currently a Cubs prospect in A-ball or above could realistically be ready by then. The Cubs are going to need four new starting pitchers for the 2021 season.

It is more than likely that after the 2020 season, considering the amount of money that will be freed up by the expiring contracts of Lester, Quintana, Hendricks, and Chatwood, the Cubs will try to use a mixture of their own prospects, free agency, and trades to get the best new rotation possible. The farm system should be rebuilt from the all the prospect spending that occurred to set up the current level of sustained success for the past three years and the next 2 to 3 years.

I would love to see the starting pitchers that the Cubs drafted and signed develop over the course of the next few years make it to the major leagues and become stars. It’s a lot cheaper that way, but it might also not be as realistic. No level of success is guaranteed, and you never know what you’re going to get when pitchers get to the higher echelon of the minors.

The last six years have shown that the Cubs know how to draft and develop hitters. Developing their own starting pitching is still just a couple years away. The Darvish signing is a great boon to the major league club, and it’s a mixed sign to the minors. While it does give the prospects a couple more years to develop, it’s also a sign that the Cubs own pitching will not be ready for the majors for a couple more years.

However, that day is coming soon. Based on the names listed above, the Cubs will soon have a surplus when they are actually needed and developed thanks to signing Darvish.

Lead photo by Rick Scuteri—USA Today Sports

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