Bad news, everyone!
So the Cubs did what I think we were all at least somewhat afraid they would do this offseason, and they went out and signed themselves the top free agent arm on the market. Even worse, they got what looks like a pretty significant discount on him, relative to the dollars per WAR we were expecting coming into this fiasco.
Chicago inked Yu Darvish yesterday to a six year, $126 million deal, with potential escalators that could bring the value of the contract up to $150 million. There’s an opt out after year two of the deal as well, so if Darvish goes out and carves through the NL Central he’ll have the option of hitting the market again after 2019.
I’ve read a few people here and there putting out the opinion they like this as Cardinal fans, that the Cubs are tying themselves to an anchor and will shortly be drowning when all the money they’re paying Darvish comes crashing down on their heads. Personally, I am not a fan of my team’s division rival signing an elite starting pitcher for a below-market rate, thus erasing the bigger part of the gains my team made on them throughout the whole offseason in one move, but hey, that’s just me. You do you, everybody.
Darvish for 2018 is projected to be worth somewhere between 3.5 and 4.0 wins, depending on which projection system you look at, and immediately becomes the Cubs’ second-best starting pitcher right behind Jose Quintana. I don’t know the exact details of all the incentives yet — not sure anyone does at this point — so I can’t speculate on how good, or how durable, or how whatever he would have to be for his salary to go markedly higher than the $21 million figure being quoted right now, but let’s face it: Darvish at $21 million a year for 3.5-4.0 wins is a bargain. Now, admittedly, there’s more than just this year to consider, and if we do the standard half-win per year loss, Darvish is looking at about 13.5 wins or so over the course of the contract if we start him at 3.5. We bump that up to 4 wins in year one and it jumps to 16.5 wins over the life of the deal. So probably about market value over the full contract if he’s on the lower end of that, and potentially a bargain if he’s on the high side, depending on the structure of the incentives.
As I said, the real gut punch of this is that it basically pushes the Cubs right back up to six or so wins better than the Cardinals, when the Redbirds had managed to trim that on-paper gap to roughly four wins with their machinations this offseason. The Cubs still have a huge head start in their two core players, Bryant and Rizzo, and now they have what looks like a substantially better rotation going into the season. Now, admittedly, the Cardinals’ pitching is probably getting better going forward, with Alex Reyes and Jack Flaherty and Ryan Helsley all on their way sometime this season (probably), while the Cubs’ rotation is better right now than it will ever be again, given that Lester is 34, Darvish is 32, Quintana is 29, and even the two kids of the group, Chatwood and Hendricks, are both 28. But in the near term, the Cards simply cannot compete on a level playing field with the Cub rotation. Carlos and Quintana are roughly a push at the top, but after that it tilts in Chicago’s favour in a hurry. Yes, Miles Mikolas might actually be good — lots of very smart people who run projection systems think so — but will he be better than Darvish? I would say that seems, to me at least, highly unlikely.
Of course, we all knew something like this was probably coming; the Cubs weren’t going to just stand pat this offseason and let the Cards and Brewers creep up on them. I wrote not too long ago about how tough it was going to be to catch the Cubs in just one offseason, and how extreme the measures required would, in fact, be, were the Cardinals to pursue such a course of action. El Birdos would have to mortgage a significant portion of their future to actually chase down the Cubbies this year, to the point that we might very well see serious consequences in a year or two.
So it’s looking like a wild card year again, with some pretty serious lucky bounces required to really see a legitimate shot for the Cards to take the division. The Cub lineup is stronger, if not deeper, and the rotation is significantly stronger as we sit here on the morning of February 11th. Maybe Donaldson becomes an option at midseason, and the Redbirds can force their way into serious threat territory. But for now, we have smart, practical, reasonable, and safe expectations for the upcoming season. And that’s fine; the Cardinals have proven themselves exceptionally good at seeing the big picture, planning for the long run, and never getting themselves into the kind of corner that necessitates a teardown cycle. They will be competitive this season, long shots for the division, safe bets for a wild card spot, and they will do it again next year. And the year after that. And the year after that. We won’t have to put up with the kind of brutal fall that so many other franchises have put their fans through.
Still, in the end, I have to admit it feels kind of rotten rooting for the tortoise while the hare is dunking all over you. Especially when you feel like the tortoise absolutely should have been in on a pitcher at the price point for which he signed.
It really is okay to step out of your comfort zone every once in a while, you know? Or stay there. Whatever. I’m sure those empty seats won’t be an issue again this season, right?