The Cubs Need Yu Darvish

Yu Darvish might be a necessity for a club hoping to keep pace with the NL’s super teams.
(Photo: Mike LaChance)

If Shohei Ohtani isn’t able to play in the major leagues next season, that would quickly make Yu Darvish the clear No. 1 free agent available this winter — and perhaps the only clear top-of-rotation arm. And even if Ohtani is cleared to migrate across the Pacific to play professional baseball, Darvish is likely to walk away as the highest-paid player from this free-agent class.

Yes, Darvish’s awful World Series performance is still fresh in the collective consciousness, but that shouldn’t negate his late-season work with the Dodgers. After some data-informed tweaks (documented here by Eno and also by Andy McCullough of the L.A. Times), Darvish was excellent. With the Dodgers in the second half, the right-hander struck out 61 and walked 13 in 49 innings.

Darvish doesn’t possess quite the track record of recent free-agent aces like Zack Greinke or David Price or Max Scherzer. He ranks 24th in pitching WAR (14.5) since 2013, whereas Greinke (20.8), Price (22.8), and Scherzer (29.8) all appear among the top eight. Nevertheless, Darvish could be in line to join them with a $200-million deal.

While Alex Cobb and Lance Lynn represent solid free-agent options, while Jake Arrieta rebounded with a strong second half, Darvish is the offseason’s clear top option.

He ranked 15th among qualified pitchers with a 19.6-point differential between his strikeout and walk rates (K-BB%) this past season and eighth in the second half. As a reference point, Arrieta posted a 15.3-point mark.

While Darvish is perhaps not an elite, elite ace, he’s a No. 1 on most staffs. As a result, just about every large-market club will be connected to him. Even the pitching-rich Dodgers traded for Darvish last summer. But no team could use Darvish more than the Cubs.

As you’re probably aware, Chicago is losing 40% of their rotation to free agency in Jake Arrieta and John Lackey.

Arrieta threw 594.2 innings for the Cubs over the last three seasons and was the NL Cy Young winner in 2015. Lackey, meanwhile, absorbed 359 innings the last two seasons. The Cubs are not only losing quality, they are losing a significant volume of innings. Their farm system isn’t exactly teeming with premium talent ready to fit in a major-league rotation.

It’s not that Cubs project to have a poor rotation: Jose Quintana, Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester and company are projected at the moment to compose the 12th-best rotation (13.0 WAR) in baseball. But context matters here. Consider the teams rated above them: the Dodgers (No. 1), Nationals (No. 4), Cardinals (No. 8), Diamondbacks (No. 9), and Rockies (No. 11). Those, of course, are the other four NL playoff teams from 2017 and the division-rival Cardinals.

The Cubs ranked 11th in starting pitching WAR (11.8) in 2017 and third in 2016 (17.4). The latter was, of course, the year in which Chicago claimed a World Series title.

While starters account for a lower volume of work every year and while pitching roles are evolving, starting pitchers are still the highest paid and generally the most talented arms in the game. The teams that collected the best starting pitchers last year were the best teams in baseball. The Indians, Dodgers, Nationals, Red Sox, Dodgers, Astros and Yankees finished No. 1-7, respectively, in starting pitcher production last season. All of those seven teams finished in the top eight of regular-season wins.

The Cubs need to add more starting-pitcher firepower, less to make the playoffs — in the very early projections, only six NL teams project to have winning records and one of those is the 82-80 forecast of the Pirates — but the need is more for when they arrive there. Chicago is tasked with keeping up with the sport’s other super teams, to remain competitive with the Dodgers and Nationals and Diamondbacks in what appears to be a very unbalanced National League. Darvish is the only obvious candidate to fill that void at the moment.

The Cubs are designed to fill such a void with such an arm. After all, they’ve done it before. The club, of course, implemented a strategy of spending their premium picks on position players and they hit on many of those selections. They used their financial might to fill voids in the rotation with Lackey and Lester. They traded for Quintana. It’s a model they ought to follow again this offseason amid what figures to be intense bidding for Darvish. Note: Darivsh did have the Cubs on his no-trade list which could complicate matters. They’ll have to overpay, perhaps, but it might be a necessary move to compete in the NL, in what is increasingly becoming a neighborhood of Haves and Have Nots. Keeping up with the Joneses requires luxury items.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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6 years ago

The Cubs are capped at a max bonus of $300K (some teams can go as high as $7-8M), and don’t have DH PAs to offer Otani. They seem a highly unlikely landing place.

6 years ago
Reply to  snapper

Cubs could pitch Ohtani with a “Madden likes to be unorthodox, so while you won’t get regular DH ABs, you’ll get your share of random games in LF”.

But it might be the question of the Cubs wanting him way more than he wanting to go there. I could see them being one of the rare teams to move him to LF for a couple batters here or there to bring in a LOOGY, and then move him back to the mound.

Dave T
6 years ago
Reply to  Matt

Perhaps, but I’m skeptical that a team would send Ohtani to play OF once or twice per week on his non-pitching days with the potential for multiple max effort throws. I think that if he gets playing time on days when he’s not pitching, it will be as some combination of DH, 1B, and pinch hitter.