Yu Darvish May Be the Rental Everyone Wants

Yesterday, the Rangers announced that they’d be without Cole Hamels for the next couple of months, as he recovers from an oblique strain that was probably why he was pitching so poorly. A few hours later, they played the Astros in the third game of their four game series, and just like the previous two nights, they lost.

And they didn’t just lose; they got pounded 10-1, pushing them eight full games behind Houston in the AL West race. Now 11-17, the Rangers have the fourth-worst record in baseball, and their playoff odds have taken a nosedive; we currently are giving them just a 10% chance to reach the postseason.

And while it’s early enough to turn their season around, the disastrous first month of the season, paired with significant injuries to Hamels and Adrian Beltre, make it more likely that the Rangers are going to enter July in a precarious position. With some improvements from some key players, it’s not that hard to see this team making a late-season comeback, as they did a couple of years ago, to dig out of this big early hole and still put themselves in Wild Card position. But before they get there, the team will have to convince the front office to keep the roster together, and in particular, to ignore the numerous calls they’ll certainly be receiving on Yu Darvish.

The Rangers’ ace is in the last year the six year contract he signed with the team when he came over, and if the Rangers don’t get him signed before the season ends, he’s going to be one of the premier free agents in this upcoming class. In-season extensions aren’t entirely unheard of — Stephen Strasburg re-signed with the Nationals on May 9th last year, for instance — but most guys who make it to their walk year end up testing the market, and it’s unlikely that anything that has happened since negotiations broke off during Spring Training have made Darvish more likely to pass up the chance to be a free agent.

And that combination of a team with a poor chance of making the postseason holding a premium player in the last year of his contract is the recipe for endless trade speculation. While the Rangers aren’t going to do anything any time soon, as of early May, it appears that Jon Daniels might spend his summer as the auctioneer of the Yu Darvish sweepstakes.

As the Yankees showed last year, being the guy with the stuff everyone wants can be an enviable position, and the Yankees willingness to sell at last year’s deadline was probably one of the best things that has happened to the franchise in a while. The Rangers won’t control the starting pitching market the same way the Yankees controlled the reliever market, but for teams looking at a short-term upgrade, there’s not going to be a more appealing option than slotting Darvish in at the front of their rotation.

Sure, there are going to be other good pitchers out there. Jose Quintana is still available, and isn’t a rental, so he’ll appeal to teams looking for help beyond 2017 too. The Giants could trade Johnny Cueto if they think he’s going to exercise his opt-out after the season. The Pirates might listen on Gerrit Cole if they think their current plan isn’t working. The Diamondbacks will probably be trying to get someone to take most of Zack Greinke’s contract. But if the goal is to just get the best pitcher available for the rest of this season, Darvish is going to be your guy.

Now pitching in his fifth season in the US, Darvish has a pretty well established track record, and he’s been remarkably consistent around his established level. He has a career 77/77/78 ERA-/FIP-/xFIP- line, and he’s been between 67-90 in ERA-, 71-85 in FIP-, and 72-87 in xFIP-. Darvish is steadily about 25 percent better than the average starting pitcher, putting him solidly in the tier of non-Kershaw aces that includes Jake Arrieta, Corey Kluber, and David Price. There are a lot of good pitchers in baseball right now, but Darvish is a top-10 Major League starter.

In terms of what renting a pitcher of this caliber costs, we’ve helpfully got a pretty decent number of recent examples. In 2015, the Blue Jays gave up Daniel Norris, Matt Boyd, and Jairo Labourt to get Price for August through October, knowing they probably weren’t going to be able to re-sign him once he got to free agency. Norris had just been rated as a top-20 prospect by Baseball America, while Boyd and LaBourt were interesting additions, not just throw-ins.

Four days earlier, the Royals had landed Cueto for Brandon Finnegan, John Lamb, and Cody Reed; Finnegan wasn’t as well regarded as Norris, but he was still a Top-100 prospect that had to be accompanied by two other interesting pieces in order to land the rent-an-ace KC was looking for.

The year before that, Jon Lester was the big arm on the market, but wasn’t traded for prospects; the A’s surrendered Yoenis Cespedes off their Major League roster instead. It makes his deal tougher to evaluate in terms of Darvish’s expected cost, but he was traded for a slightly lesser player with one extra year of control remaining, so his deal does show that if Texas doesn’t want to push their timeline back too far, there might be an avenue to pursue getting a good player that they could have for the rest of this year and 2018 as well.

And then back in 2012, the Angels gave up Jean Segura, Ariel Pena, and Johnny Hellweg to land Zack Greinke for the stretch run. Like the Price and Cueto deals, it was centered around a consensus Top-100 guy with two extra pieces of potential, though in this case, neither panned out.

The market has provided a pretty clear indicator of what renting an ace costs; a top 50-ish prospect plus a couple of add-on pieces that have upside. The Rangers can probably argue that Darvish’s stuff and ability to strike everybody out put him a bit ahead of a guy like Cueto, who relies a bit more on the weak-contact approach, which teams usually won’t pay as much for. The Price and Greinke deals are probably closer to what Texas is going to be looking for.

And there’s one team that could clearly afford to meet that price: the Chicago Cubs. Without a real fifth starter, and with several of their best pitchers from this year experiencing velocity and performance drops this year, the Cubs are almost certainly going to be buying an arm this summer. They’ve long said they preferred to use their trade chips to acquire a guy they’d control for multiple years, but with Quintana pitching for the rival Chicago team and Cole pitching for a division rival, pulling off a deal for either of those two would prove tricky.

A year ago, the team went all-in with a monstrous offer to land Aroldis Chapman, even though they only had him for the stretch run, and the Cubs have the talent depth to make a similar blow-everyone-out-of-the-water offer to land Darvish. Build a deal around a guy like Ian Happ, who is an interesting young hitter but has no path to playing time in Chicago, and it would be tough for other teams to outbid the Cubs if they decide they want to land Darvish.

But perhaps the Cubs won’t have an appetite for that kind of deal two years in a row. If Arrieta and Lester are throwing the ball well in July, the Cubs could rationally decide they don’t really need another frontline starter, as there’s only so many innings to go around in the postseason, especially with the growing influence of bullpens in October. So who could be in the Darvish sweepstakes if the Cubs don’t just outbid everyone like they did for Chapman?

The Yankees would be an obvious fit. While Brian Cashman has spent a lot of time building the team back up for the long haul, and might be against giving up a lot to land a rental for a one-year spike before the team’s young prospects all get to the show, Darvish would give the Yankees a legitimate #1 starter, something they don’t currently have. And given that they’re probably going to be suitors for him this winter, they could justify paying a high price to try and get a leg up on negotiations, helping him get comfortable with pitching in New York before they had to make their big pitch next winter.

For the Rangers, having the Cubs and Yankees get in a bidding war would essentially be the dream scenario, as there’s plenty to like in either system. But the Rangers wouldn’t just be limited to talking to the old and new empires of MLB; you’d have to imagine the Rockies will be interested if they are still in playoff contention in July, the Astros would probably at least try to see if the Rangers would deal Darvish within the division (as they did with Cliff Lee), and you never want to count Dave Dombrowski out of an auction for a frontline starting pitching, even if the Red Sox really don’t need another #1 starter.

While the Rangers would certainly rather just win and make this all go away, their slow start at least has a silver lining. If they continue to fall out of the race, they’ll likely get a chance to restock the talent base of the organization by dealing Darvish for a significant package, and the teams that are most likely to be interested happen to have some of the best crops of young talent to pick from. If they can’t get Darvish to sign long-term before July, playing the Cubs and Yankees against each other in a Darvish auction isn’t such a bad alternative.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Monsignor Martinez
5 years ago

I can’t believe this is already his 5th year playing in the bigs. How time flies.