With pitchers and catchers set to report to MLB spring training camps next week (and free agents who haven’t signed holding their own training camp in Florida), teams and available players may be getting more serious about agreeing on some deals. The top free agent pitcher on the market finally signing could get those wheels turning.
Yu Darvish has agreed to a six-year deal worth $126 million with the Chicago Cubs, according to The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal. Rosenthal added that incentive clauses could boost the contract’s value up to $150 million.
The deal becoming official is pending a physical, which isn’t necessarily a formality considering Darvish’s history with elbow, shoulder and back injuries. Lower back tightness put him on the disabled list last August.
Like many of the top free agents on the market this offseason, Darvish had yet to sign with a team with many clubs opting not to pay big money when competing for division titles and postseason spots is unlikely. Instead, more than half of MLB is focused on reducing payroll and rebuilding rosters through drafting and development. Some conspiracy theorists also believe there was at least an unspoken agreement among owners not to bankroll huge contracts to keep costs down.
That narrative could very well be debunked over the next couple of weeks, if Darvish’s signing is any indication.
But it could certainly be true that the only teams in the market for expensive free-agent talent are those intending to compete for World Series championships. Two years removed from a title, the Cubs obviously fit into that category and addressed a significant need by adding Darvish to their rotation. With Jon Lester and Jose Quintana at the top, the Cubs still needed one more starter to assemble a strong top three to compete with the Dodgers and Nationals for the National League pennant.
(Chicago signed Tyler Chatwood to a three-year, $38 million deal earlier in the offseason, but he’s viewed as a mid-rotation or even back-end starter. That’s exactly where he’ll slot in with Darvish now joining the team.)
dodgers were said to have offered in the same ballpark as cubs, but he picked chicago #darvish
— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) February 10, 2018
Additionally, signing Darvish keeps him away from the Dodgers, who were reportedly the runner-up for his services, and the Brewers, an NL Central rival who were also pursuing the right-hander. Other teams reportedly in the bidding for Darvish included the Yankees, Rangers (with whom Darvish spent most of his MLB career), Twins, and Astros (who likely bowed out after acquiring Gerrit Cole). Both the Dodgers and Yankees may have moved on Darvish sooner had those clubs not been concerned with exceeding the luxury tax threshold for this season.
Darvish joining the rotation also helps the Cubs’ bullpen, allowing the team to push Mike Montgomery back into the relief corps and pitch as a middle or long reliever who can help reduce the burden on starting pitchers. Montgomery will likely also be utilized as a spot starter throughout the season, as he was last year when he made 14 starts for the Cubs.
Whether the Cubs and team president Theo Epstein admit this or not, the team probably wasn’t expecting to sign a free agent of Darvish’s caliber — and price tag — going into the offseason. Injury concerns and Darvish’s surprisingly bad postseason performance surely made teams hesitant to commit. But an Astros player told Sports Illustrated‘s Tom Verducci that Darvish was tipping his pitches, dispelling any notion that the right-hander’s health may have led to allowing eight runs and nine hits in 3.1 innings (resulting in a 21.60 ERA) during the World Series.
Most rumblings had Epstein more interested in pursuing a younger, less expensive starter who was under team control for two or more seasons, like Tampa Bay’s Chris Archer or Toronto’s Marcus Stroman. But the Cubs may not have wanted to surrender the young talent necessary to make such a trade. And as it turns out, the free agent market worked in their favor when Darvish couldn’t find the reported seven-year contract he wanted (preferably for the $175 million Stephen Strasburg signed for with the Nationals, according to FanRag Sports’ Jon Heyman) and may have been more willing to meet their price.
If pitchers like Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb were going to cost $20 million per season (the market probably won’t yield that kind of deal for them now), the Cubs figured it was worth paying just a bit more to get Darvish. Obviously, they named a price Darvish was happy with and the Cubs look like an even stronger World Series contender than they did 24 hours ago.