“You don’t want to make a living or habit out of trying to solve your problems with high-price pitching free agents because over the long run there’s so much risk involved that you really can hamstring your organization. But we have a lot of players who have reasonable salaries who contribute an awful lot who might put us in a position to consider it going forward and in the future… It’s not our preferred method. We would prefer to make a small deal and find another Jake Arrieta, but you can’t do that every year, either.”
The Cubs know the pitfalls of free agency.
And on Saturday afternoon, they acquired Darvish, FanGraphs’ No. 1-rated free agent, who remained available on Feb. 10 in the most bizarre of offseason markets. Top-end starting pitchers are typically among the first big-ticket items to go in free agency, and yet FanGraphs’ top-three free-agent starting pitchers remained unemployed entering Saturday.
While it took a while for this marriage to be arranged, this is typically how it plays out in free agency: a large-market club with World Series aspirations addresses a possible weakness with a top-of-the-market signing.
Sources: Chances of Darvish getting to $150M with #Cubs quite slim; would need to win multiple Cy Young awards. His guarantee is $126M over six years, making contract the longest and richest free-agent deal of off-season.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) February 10, 2018
— Jerry Crasnick (@jcrasnick) February 10, 2018
The Cubs were built to do this.
Following several consecutive down years, the organization purposefully used their premium draft picks on position players, knowing that they represent safer assets that tend to follow a more predictable and productive development path. The Cubs would ultimately address their pitching voids by means of the club’s considerable financial resources. It’s not a model that works for so-called mid- or small-market clubs, but it can succeed in Chicago.
It’s not that Cubs would have necessarily entered the season with a poor rotation: Jose Quintana, Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester, and company were forecast as the 12th-best rotation in baseball entering the offseason (14.6 WAR). With the addition of Darvish, Chicago’s rotation jumps to fourth (16.6 WAR), trailing the Dodgers, Astros and Indians.
Chicago entered the day with a four-win edge over the Cardinals, according to FanGraphs’ forecasts. Darvish projects to add two more wins to that advantage. Cubs now match the Dodgers with an NL-best forecast of 94 wins. With Darvish, the Cubs look more like a super team.
While the Cubs have the resources to sign such arms, they also need to sign such arms. They have also suffered from unusually poor pitcher development. As Sahadev Sharma found in a piece for The Athletic earlier this offseason, the Cubs have produced the least amount of homegrown pitching production among any club in the Epstein era. Consider the chart Sharma produced:
Sharma examined the number of innings recorded for every major-league team by pitchers they’d acquired via the draft since the arrival of the current curse-breaking Cubs regime ahead of the 2012 season. During that timeframe, which includes six drafts, the Cubs have produced a total of 30 homegrown innings. Thirty! The Blue Jays lead the majors with 1,299 such innings. The Cardinals are second in the majors and lead the NL with 872.
The Cubs have voids to fill and they needed to fill them with high-end talent. So, with Darvish, they filled a void. But did they do so at too great a cost? Was it a good deal for the Cubs? For Darvish?
Perhaps it’s best categorized as a necessary deal for both parties.
Former FanGraphs editor Dave Cameron forecast that Darvish would receive a six-year, $168-million deal back in November. The crowd predicted a five-year, $125-million deal. But as Carson wrote in an InstaGraphs post on the signing of Darvish, the crowd is typically conservative on big-item deals. So it’s possible the Cubs have actually benefited from a modest New Year’s discount effect. The maximum guaranteed dollars are $42 million below Cameron’s estimate. (It was reported after this post was initially published that Darvish has an opt-out after the 2019 season, which is a player-friendly feature).
Moreover, with large-market teams like the Dodgers and Yankees seemingly determined to remain under the luxury-tax threshold, Darvish probably did not have the market for which he had hoped. Even after agreeing to pay their new starter up to $25 million per season, the Cubs remain under the tax threshold, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts.
Darvish also lacked the track record of recent free-agent aces — like Zack Greinke or David Price or Max Scherzer — who have exceeded $200 million in terms. Darvish ranks 24th in pitching WAR (14.5) since 2013, whereas Greinke (20.8), Price (22.8), and Scherzer (29.8) have all exceeded 20 WAR.
But what is also interesting about Darvish is there still might be more upside residing in his right arm — if the club can help him extract it.
As documented by Eno Sarris at this site and also by Andy McCullough of the L.A. Times, Darvish made some changes to his pitch type and sequencing after joining the Dodgers, embracing some of their data-based suggestions. He lowered his arm slot and began burying his breaking ball even deeper.
Consider where he located his curve against lefties while with the Rangers:
And with the Dodgers:
The result? Darvish was excellent in the latter part of the season. And while he fell flat in the World Series, let us not forget that the right-hander struck out 61 and walked 13 in 49 innings with the Dodgers in the second half.
So while the Cubs ideally would like to not be signing a nine-figure free-agent deal, they need a player like Darvish. The Cubs have short-term needs, and it’s possible Darvish might have even more to offer. For both parties, it seems a necessary fit.