After a months-long free-agent standoff, the Cubs signed right-hander Yu Darvish to a six-year, $126 million contract, with incentives that could bring the deal up to $150 million. This deal comes less than a week before Chicago’s pitchers and catchers are due to report to training camp and could be the move that breaks a bizarre logjam that’s characterized this offseason.
Darvish is a like-for-like replacement for Jake Arrieta, who won a Cy Young with the Cubs in 2015 and a World Series a year later, but remains unsigned. The Cubs have gone to the NLCS three straight years largely on the strength of their homegrown position players: From 2011 to 2015, they spent five straight top-10 picks on position players (Albert Almora, Kris Bryant, Javier Báez, Kyle Schwarber, and Ian Happ), all of whom will be key contributors in Chicago’s lineup this year.
That hot streak in the draft allowed the Cubs to fill out their rotation with pitchers acquired from outside the organization, including two starters on nine-figure contracts—Darvish and Jon Lester. A third, José Quintana, was acquired last summer from the White Sox in a blockbuster trade. Teams that contend consistently for many years evolve slowly around their core, and swapping Arrieta for Darvish is the latest step in that evolution.
Darvish, now 31, had just about the worst week of his life during last year’s World Series: He started Games 3 and 7 and got torched in both starts, both losses—a combined zero strikeouts and nine runs allowed in 3⅓ innings. But from the moment he arrived in North America until this year’s World Series, Darvish has been one of the best pitchers in baseball.
Since his debut in 2011, Darvish is 19th among starting pitchers in wins above replacement and 16th in wins above average (WAA); among pitchers with at least 400 innings pitched, he’s 13th in ERA+ and second in strikeout rate. Since returning from Tommy John surgery in mid-2016, Darvish has a 28.9 percent strikeout rate and a 123 ERA+. And up until those disastrous two starts in the World Series, Darvish had a career 3.52 ERA with 25 strikeouts in 23 innings pitched in four playoff starts.
In short, he’s really good, and every team in baseball would get better by signing him.
Which makes it a little disappointing that he won’t be paid more. Darvish’s deal is almost certainly for $126 million, which is the make-your-grandkids-rich deal all ballplayers dream of signing, but it’s not $150 million. Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, who was first to report the deal, said the full $150 million value is contingent on Darvish winning multiple Cy Young awards, which probably won’t happen. That means the best pitcher on the market is probably going to make in the neighborhood of $21 million a year. In May 2016, Washington’s Stephen Strasburg—a comparable pitcher to Darvish—signed a seven-year $175 million contract extension. While Strasburg was three years younger in 2016 than Darvish is now, he also has a much more colorful injury history and wasn’t on the open market when he signed the deal.
Or consider Mike Leake, whose career-high ERA+ of 112 is the same as the worst mark of Darvish’s career. Two years ago, Leake signed a five-year contract for $16 million a year. If Leake is worth $16 million a year, how is Darvish worth only $21 million?
There are question marks around Darvish—notably his age, his own history of elbow injuries, and the fact he ran into trouble by tipping his pitches a few times in 2017. But he’s a much better pitcher than his contract would lead you to believe. It’s hard not to draw the conclusion that the league-wide free-agent signing slowdown isn’t just delaying when players change teams, it’s actually depressing salaries. Darvish’s contract alone isn’t a smoking gun for an allegation as serious as collusion, but it’s another data point.
Still, Cubs fans will be happy that their team has strengthened its rotation—so happy they won’t care that the Ricketts family (the billionaires who own the club) saved about $50 million in doing so.