By Zane Harding
The Cubs made a huge splash Saturday afternoon, inking All-Star pitcher Yu Darvish to a long-term contract. The 6-Year/$126M deal has a $21M AAV and is the biggest contract signed in this unprecedently slow off-season. By committing to Yu Darvish long-term, the Cubs immediately enter win-now mode and are all-in to win with a powerful Lester-Darvish-Hendricks-Quintana-Chatwood rotation, a young and temporarily affordable lineup, and a formidable bullpen.
First, let’s take a look at the man of the hour, Yu Darvish. A six-year veteran of the Majors since coming over from Japan, Darvish is a five-time all-star (only missing the All-Star Game in 2016) and immediately becomes a second ace in a rotation that was projected to be led by Jon Lester, who followed up his fantastic 2016 season with a measly 0.7 rWAR in 180.2 IP. (Some would argue Kyle Hendricks would’ve been the ace coming into the season, but Hendricks followed up his brilliant 2016 season with only 139.2 IP in 2016.) Darvish, meanwhile, has posted a minimum 2.5 rWAR in every season he’s pitched to date, despite the fact he’s only pitched more than 180 innings three times and more than 200 innings once. Let’s make this clear: the Cubs are not signing a workhorse in Yu Darvish. They’re adding another Kyle Hendricks, essentially, and banking that both Darvish and Hendricks will remain healthy enough to, one, secure a postseason spot, and two, pitch in the postseason (and hopefully, in Darvish’s case, differently than he did in the World Series). This is a calculated risk by Theo Epstein, who is clearly in win-now mode as the Cubs rotation slowly crumbles.
Before signing Darvish, the Cubs fifth starter was projected to be Mike Montgomery, and fellow free agent acquisition Tyler Chatwood was projected to be part of the Cubs’ playoff rotation. Don’t get me wrong: I think very highly of Tyler Chatwood and think he’ll perform well for the Cubs. In his career with the Colorado Rockies, he had a 5.25 ERA at home and a 3.31 ERA on the road. That said, he’s also worse as the year goes on: in the first half of the season, he has a career 3.75 ERA and 408.1 IP, but only 239.1 IP and a much weaker 5.26 ERA in the second half. Tyler Chatwood was not the most reliable option for a win-now playoff rotation. Now, Yu Darvish isn’t exactly a symbol for health, but he has pitched 471.2 IP in the first half and 360.2 IP in the second half, holding similar ERAs (3.24 vs. 3.64) and a much smaller difference in innings between the two than Chatwood. This is an immediate upgrade for the Cubs and should help them in the postseason, setting aside Darvish’s miserable 2017 showing.
All in all, Darvish is a win-now move for a win-now team. Should Darvish’s health decline, the Cubs may end up greatly regretting this deal. That said, Darvish had his best and healthiest season since 2013 this past season, and he offers the Cubs the best opportunity to succeed of any available pitcher on the market. Jake Arrieta has never been more than a #2 pitcher in any year other than his brilliant 2015 season and is likely demanding more money than Darvish as a Boras client. The Cubs made the right move here. Theo wants another ring, and with this move, he’s increasing his odds of getting one.