There have been two large schools of thought on the Cubs offseason. One has been that the Cubs should execute a cautious approach. This approach is what the Cubs offseason has largely looked like so far. They have chosen to invest in short term deals with slightly higher AAV committed to the players. They have favored upside plays with considerable risk in both Chatwood and Morrow. The virtues of this strategy has been extolled by Jared earlier this week.
There is a lot of logic in this approach. The organization is going to have to spend a lot of money on the core of position players in upcoming years. The team has taken very calculated and reasonable gambles that could play up huge. A few rebounds or breakouts from the existing talent happen, and this is perhaps another super team like the 2016 vintage. If those don’t happen there is still plenty of talent that should result in a fourth consecutive playoff berth, and once you reach the postseason anything can happen.
There is also the matter of perhaps the best class of free agent talent ever in the upcoming offseason. The Cubs will certainly be players in a market flush with impact position players (Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson) and pitchers (Clayton Kershaw can opt out). Overspending in this offseason could take them out of landing another potential core player. These are all legitimate reasons to play it safe in terms of committing future dollars or years of control over young talent, but it is not the only possible or logical method to fine-tuning the 2018 Cubs.
The Cubs could land an impact player through free agency or trade that dramatically improves their chances at another title in 2018 instead. These types of moves carry long term drawbacks such as the hypothetical mega-deal built around Addison Russell for Manny Machado. There is little to suggest that this is something that either front office has considered, but the hypothetical deal provides the obvious downside to this type of move. Yu Darvish would not cost the team anything in terms of talent. It would not cost the organization anything in terms of draft picks or international bonus pool money (There would be effects in terms of international bonus pool if the team goes over the luxury tax threshold, but the Cubs are currently projected to have over 44 million available under the tax threshold according to Cots). The only cost would be the opportunity to spend future dollars on another player. That isn’t nothing, but it is a far more hypothetical cost than trading Addison Russell.
Yu Darvish seems to be an actual target for the Cubs. Reports are circulating from a Japanese site and Bruce Levine that the Cubs are “kicking the tires” on Darvish. These are the first solid reports besides the speculation from national writers of the fit. It also makes sense given that Theo Epstein and crew often circle back to targets. They did this with Justin Grimm, Dan Haren and Tommy Hunter to name just a few in their time at the helm of the Cubs. The Texas Rangers blew away the Cubs bid, but they were second or third depending on the reports you choose to believe. The question becomes then: how aggressive should the Cubs pursue Darvish?
There are some that think he isn’t worth anywhere near what he will likely command as one of the two best starters available in free agency. MLB Trade Rumors predicted a 6 year, $160 million deal when also prognosticating a Cubs landing spot. That seems like a reasonable expectation that would just beat the deal Jon Lester signed 3 years ago. The Cubs should not be willing to pay absolutely any dollar amount, but if the contract is and around this figure then the Cubs should be aggressive.
The 6 year deal is where many of those in the conservative offseason camp balk. The odds are small that Darvish or any pitcher is going to be worth the dollar or tax figure that he will be earning at ages 34-36, but the Cubs have the ability to absorb those dollars. Darvish will likely perform at a high level until the Cubs reach the end of their competitive window. At that point they should be able to absorb the remainder of the deal where his salary exceeds his output. Jon Lester, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood are all poised to enter free agency after the 2020 season.
The year and dollar amount carries risk given his injury history and recent performance. Yu Darvish’s 2014 season was cut short by elbow inflammation and missed all of 2015 following Tommy John surgery. He has yet to duplicate the performance of his 2013 season where he probably should have won the Cy Young over Max Scherzer. He also was shelled in the World Series, and the entire reason you spend on Darvish is to increase your odds of winning after game 162.
Injuries are a concern with any human who makes their living by pitching, and Darvish threw 186.2 regular season innings last season. The number of times that Tyler Chatwood has thrown that many or more that is zero. The number of times that Alex Cobb has has thrown that many is zero. The number of times Yu Darvish has thrown that many or more is three. Darvish also saw his velocity increase since coming back from Tommy John surgery. Depending on the source, last year was either the highest or second highest average fastball velocity from Darvish.
Darvish’s results have not matched the extremely high level he pitched at before Tommy John, but he could be poised to return to that level. His walk rate has been significantly better the past two seasons. His strikeout rate dropped below 30% for the first time since his rookie season, but the main issue was a jump in homers. Yu Darvish did pitch half of his games in the Ballpark in Arlington. Globe Life Park isn’t the launching pad it used to be, but the improved results in Los Angeles suggest that the home run problem isn’t permanent. He also wasn’t the only pitcher to see a spike in home runs given up. There is plenty of reason to think that Darvish can handle pitching at a high level for the next several seasons. Those seasons are the most important to consider.
The Cubs don’t need Yu Darvish. The roster is good enough to make it to the postseason, and anything can happen once you are there as the saying goes. However, that saying reduces the playoffs to being a total crapshoot, and that is probably also not accurate as well. The past couple of postseasons have clearly had very talented teams that were deserving of their championships. The playoffs also are a different beast than the regular season. Depth, which was required to make it through 162 games, then becomes far less important than the talent at the top of the roster. The addition of Darvish adds a weapon for the postseason unlike an Alex Cobb signing would.
Now some argue that the Cubs best chance to maximize their chances for titles is to wait for the next free agent class. The 2019 free agent class is indeed very exciting, but the Cubs are not going to be alone in pursuing those targets. The New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers are largely sitting out of free agency now as they attempt to reset their luxury tax clocks. The Dodgers trade this afternoon has them under the threshold for next year, and the Yankees deal of Chase Headley should give them plenty of room to add an additional starter like Alex Cobb this year while remaining under the tax threshold. The Cubs best opportunity to find value at the top of the market might in fact be this year’s class.
Ultimately this either-or proposition of spending now or later isn’t the way this or any front office views an offseason. That is far too binary thinking, but the Cubs are going to do everything to add another starter before the 2018 season opens. It may be a trade involving young position player talent for a more long term solution than a 31 year old free agent. More likely though it will be a free agent signing given the difficulties in finding a match in talent and thinking between two organizations. Alex Cobb is reportedly looking for $20 million a year. He may get it or close to it with a robust market with the Yankees clearly back in along with the rest of the AL East teams besides Tampa. Darvish would add a bonafide front-of-the-rotation starter for next season and more than likely the remainder of this competitive window. It commits future dollars to diminishing performances later, but it also maximizes the chances of fulfilling the dynasty talk of just a year ago.