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Troubling Offseason Trend Continues as Cubs Snag Yu Darvish at Reduced Rate

A major free agent finally signed in this sluggish offseason, but at an alarming price. Yu Darvish's deal is just the latest example of how screwy MLB's current econimics are.

With just a few days to go before pitchers and catchers report in Florida and Arizona, Yu Darvish finally knows where he’ll be headed. On Saturday afternoon, multiplereports broke that Darvish, formerly of the Dodgers, was signing a six-year, $126 million deal with the Cubs. The move takes the best available pitcher off the free agent market at an absurdly late date, but given the lighter-than-expected financial terms and the apparent lack of competition for Darvish’s services, it doesn’t suggest that power has started to swing back toward the players in this difficult, frozen offseason.

There’s no questioning that Darvish was the pitching prize of the winter. The 31-year-old Japanese righty posted a 3.86 ERA and 209 strikeouts in 186 2/3 innings split between Texas and Los Angeles, and his 118 ERA+ was good for 24th among all qualified starters last year. Armed with six distinct pitches, including a devastating slider (batters hit just .174 against it in 2017), he routinely makes fools of hitters, getting a swing and a miss on his offerings 12.3% of the time last year, good for 13th best in the game. Darvish was also top-15 in avoiding contact (a 73.7% rate, four points below the league average) and in strikeout percentage (27.3%). Simply put: Darvish misses bats with the best of them.

Last season had its rough patches, though—namely the way it ended, with Darvish getting bombed by the Astros in Game 7 the World Series. Over two starts, he was torched for eight runs, two homers, and two walks in 3 1/3 innings. Not only did he fail to record a strikeout in 22 batters faced, but he also didn’t get a single swing and miss on any pitch he threw in the Fall Classic. Strangely enough, Houston hitters teed off the most on his formerly unhittable slider. One possible explanation for his brutal performance: Tom Verducci reported not long after Darvish’s start that the baseballs used in the series were slicker than those from the regular season, keeping pitchers from getting a good grip. “Yu noticed the difference,” Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt told Verducci after Game 4. “He wasn’t able to throw his slider the same way.”

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Be it bad baseballs, bad mojo or something else entirely, Darvish’s bummer of a World Series hung over his free agency like a cloud—or at least, that’s what his lackluster market would have you believe. To be fair, there are other issues with his resumé: 2015 Tommy John surgery, the fact that he has just one 200-inning season to his name, a poor start to last season with the Rangers, and his age (he’ll be 32 in August). All of that adds up to a pitcher who is immensely talented but somewhat flawed, and maybe not the strongest long-term investment.

But that’s the case for every free agent every winter, and it doesn’t explain why it took until essentially the final week of the offseason for someone to sign the best pitcher available. Nor does it help make sense of why Darvish got only $126 million over six years out of Chicago—a $21 million average annual salary—when he’s arguably worth $20–$30 million more than that. Jay Jaffe ran the numbers on Darvish back in January and found that the stats suggested a six-year, $154 million deal would be in line with his expected performance.

Darvish’s new deal feels even more off when you compare it to what other pitchers of his ilk got when they hit free agency. In terms of both overall and average annual value, he’s nowhere near David Price (seven years and $217 million from the Red Sox), Max Scherzer (seven years and $210 million with the Nationals), or Zack Greinke (six years and $206 million from the Diamondbacks). Instead, he slots in with starters a tier below: Jordan Zimmermann (five years and $110 million, or $22 million a year, from Detroit); Johnny Cueto (six years and $130 million, or $21.66 million per year, from San Francisco); and Barry Zito (seven years and $126 million, or $18 million a season, from San Francisco). Darvish won’t even make as much, either in total or per year, as the Cubs’ last major rotation addition: Jon Lester, who scored a six-year, $155 million contract from Chicago in 2015.

By the numbers, you can argue that Darvish belongs in that foursome and not with the likes of Scherzer or Greinke, and that’s fair. For what it’s worth, he does have the best pre-free agency career ERA+ (126) and strikeout rate (11.0 per nine) of that Cueto/Zimmermann/Zito/Lester group, and he had the fewest innings thrown before hitting the market (832 1/3, nearly 300 fewer than Zimmermann). But he somehow wasn’t able to top or match either Cueto or Lester despite having better or equal stats, as well as less mileage on his arm.

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Despite his excellence, Darvish ended up the latest casualty of an offseason in which the majority of teams decided that, like WOPR in WarGames, the only way to win is not to play. That much is obvious in how little competition the Cubs had for Darvish’s services. The two biggest spenders, the Yankees and Dodgers, pinched their pennies; the former apparently was never in the conversation, and while the latter stayed in the bidding until the end, their ultimate offer was short of Chicago’s.

The rest of the league, meanwhile, was oddly wary of making an investment despite Darvish being a clear fit. Would-be contenders like the Twins, Mariners and Brewers desperately need a true No. 1 starter or rotation depth, but all of them passed. Teams like the Phillies and Braves, meanwhile, who have little to no future payroll commitments and, with Darvish on board, could have been dark-horse wild-card challengers, stayed on the sidelines.

With no other serious bidders the Cubs were able to bide their time and get Darvish at a reduced price, and that’s both a shame for him and hard to understand for the other 29 teams. It’s galling to see super-rich teams like the Dodgers and Yankees put the luxury tax above on-field concerns, and it’s confusing that neither the Twins nor Brewers, to pick a pair, could rationalize adding a potential ace to rotations that lack one. The improvement Darvish represents over the flotsam that will filter through their starting five could be all the difference between a playoff run or an October spent at home. Isn’t that worth the financial risk?

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This is what happens, though, when a sizable chunk of the league decides that it’s okay with losing and pocketing the profits, or that getting better now isn’t worth sacrificing future financial flexibility or paying luxury tax penalties. A Cy Young-caliber pitcher sat on the market for months and ended up taking a deal worth $30 million less than a comparable pitcher got three years ago despite the fact that team and league revenues have skyrocketed season after season. If you wanted proof of how screwy MLB’s current economics are, or how dire the situation is for the players and the union under the current collective bargaining agreement, look no further than what happened to Darvish.

Instead, the happiest party in all this will be the Cubs, who get Darvish to fill out a rotation of Lester, Jose Quintana, Kyle Hendricks and fellow free-agent addition Tyler Chatwood. That was a starting group full of question marks heading into the year, and with the Brewers and Cardinals both putting on the pressure this winter with big moves of their own, Chicago couldn’t afford not to act. Darvish represents a massive upgrade over previously projected fifth starter Mike Montgomery; with him in place, the Cubs are now solidly the preseason favorite to take home the NL Central crown.

Now we wait to see if Darvish’s signing opens things up for the starters still left on the market, primarily Jake Arrieta (whom Darvish replaces on the North Side) and Alex Cobb. But while Darvish finding a new home might speed up their negotiations, it’s unlikely that his weaker-than-expected deal signals bigger or better for them or anyone else still waiting to put pen to paper this winter.