Amid of a five-game losing streak and a 6–12 skid on either side of the All-Star Break, the Rangers reportedly began listening to offers for Yu Darvish. If he is indeed available as the July 31 trade deadline approaches, he rates as the top starter on the market, though his pending free agency could limit the Rangers’ return. The 30-year-old righty didn’t hurt his stock on Friday night, striking out a season-high 12 in eight strong innings against the Rays in Tampa Bay. He departed on the short end of a 3–1 score, but Shin-Soo Choo's two-run ninth-inning homer off Alex Cobb tied the game, and the Rangers won in 10 innings.
Darvish was particularly sharp and efficient, throwing 78 of his 101 pitches for strikes, walking just one, and summoning 96-97 mph even in the eighth. Via Brooks Baseball, he netted career highs of 30 swings and misses, 20 via the heater; his average four-seam velocity of 96.6 mph was 0.1 below his career high, set on May 28 of last year. All of which suggests that having his name in the rumor mill—more on that below—may have provided him a bit of extra adrenaline.
Darvish surrendered just five hits, but his line was marred by solo homers by Brad Miller in the fourth, Corey Dickerson in the sixth and Mallex Smith in the eighth. As has been the case all too often this season, he received very little help from his teammates; the Rangers have scored just 28 runs in his last 11 starts, nine them losses (six charged to Darvish). His 4.00 ERA in that span is nothing spectacular, but only in two of those starts did he allow more than three runs. Even putting the lousy run support aside, Darvish is not in the midst of his best season. While his 3.44 ERA (133 ERA+) is within a few points of his career norm, his strikeout rate is a career low whether it’s measured per nine innings (9.7) or per plate appearance (26.5%), and his home run rate is a career high (1.2 per nine).
If Darvish is truly on the market, he will likely be the only ace available prior to the deadline besides Sonny Gray, whose three remaining years of arbitration eligibility mean that it will take a more substantial package to acquire him from the A’s. Among the other potential rentals are names such as the Blue Jays’ Marco Estrada, the Cardinals’ Lance Lynn and the Phillies’ Jeremy Hellickson, none of whom have the résumé of Darvish.
A month ago, Yahoo’s Jeff Passan reported that the Rangers planned to hold on to Darvish even if they fell out of the race due to their desire to re-sign him once he reaches free agency. The team’s thinking appears to have changed recently because, as Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports reported, Darvish’s camp has suggested that he’s seeking a contract along the lines of Stephen Strasburg’s seven-year, $175 million deal, which is apparently too rich for Texas’s tastes. Rangers GM Jon Daniels has thus been checking around to see what the Japanese righty, whom the team signed to a six-year, $56 million deal after winning his rights via a $51.7 million posting fee in January 2012, could bring back in a trade.
The Cubs, even after dealing a four-prospect package that included Eloy Jimenez (ranked fifth on Baseball America’s recent Top 100 Prospects list) to get Jose Quintana, are said to have checked in on Darvish, though they’re more interested in pitchers with club control remaining such as Gray or Chris Archer, if the Rays were to make him available. Passan listed the Astros, Brewers, Dodgers, Indians, Yankees and Rockies as other candidates to land him, all contenders who are both in search of starting pitching and have the caliber of prospects the Rangers would require. Given their fierce intrastate rivalry with the Rangers, the Astros would appear to be longshots, and most of the other teams have voiced a preference for controllable pitchers.
Still, renting a pitcher of Darvish’s caliber has to be enticing. Imagine how much greater the Indians’ chances at ending their 69-year championship drought would be if they could pair him with Corey Kluber. Likewise for the Dodgers, who haven’t won since 1988, with Darvish in tandem with Clayton Kershaw. In Milwaukee, he could be the second coming of CC Sabathia, who in 2008 carried the Brewers to their first postseason trip in 26 years. In New York, he could slot between the rapidly improving Luis Severino and Sabathia himself, perhaps offering countryman Masahiro Tanaka a tip or two about turning his season around to boot. In Chicago, he could help the Cubs to back-to-back championships for the first time since 1907–08.
Ultimately, though, it’s up to the Rangers whether they want to part ways with Darvish. They already appear to be realistic about their chances of retaining him; at a Strasburg-like price, the mileage on his arm—2,074 1/3 innings including Japan—may be too much. They’ll also have to be realistic about their chances at turning their season around. While they entered Friday night “only” 4 1/2 games behind the Yankees for the second AL wild card spot, they had five other teams above them and just an 11.4% chance of making the postseason, according to the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds. After Friday’s win, they have another nine days to decide just what to do with Yu.