The 2017-18 Major League Baseball off-season has been a tedious slog of a process, one in which those of us obliged to write about baseball have spent many a day anxiously refreshing Twitter, hoping that something would happen. Entering February 10, less than a month away from Spring Training games, only two of MLB Trade Rumors’ top ten free agents (excluding never-was-a-free-agent Masahiro Tanaka and including their #11, Alex Cobb) had signed contracts—Lorenzo Cain and Wade Davis.
On Saturday afternoon, the Chicago Cubs signed MLBTR’s #1 ranked prospect, Yu Darvish, to a six-year contract worth a guaranteed $126 million, with incentives which could bring the total to $150 million. There is also a player opt-out following the 2019 season, which complicates analysis of the signing a bit but which certainly hurts the upside of the transaction for the Cubs. But player opt-outs have been the cost of doing business in recent years in free agency; the presence of a player opt-out following the third season of an evenly-distributed contract is (probably) why Jason Heyward signed with the Cubs despite less guaranteed money. It is a player-friendly concession which the St. Louis Cardinals have never included in a contract with a free agent.
A player opt-out limits the potential upside of a contract for a team (since if the player outperforms the contract, he can pursue a better one) while preserving the potential downside (since if the player underperforms, he can stay), but in the short term, the Cubs will have Yu Darvish, a top 15-20 pitcher in baseball since he made his MLB debut in 2012, and the Cardinals won’t. How Darvish ages and whether this contract will eventually be a burden for the Cubs remains to be seen, but it is difficult to rationalize the Cubs as not being a better team in 2018 for having signed him.
Until Saturday, the Cubs’ roster was less talented than the one they fielded in 2017. One can argue that the need for a premium, shut-down closer is overstated, and no team since the 2010 San Francisco Giants has won a World Series with the same closer they had to begin the season, but the presence of Wade Davis, who saved 32 games with a 2.30 earned-run average last season, is certainly helpful, and with his departure to the Colorado Rockies, the closer role appears to belong to Brandon Morrow, a free agent signing who was excellent last season but had been mostly nondescript in sporadic playing time over the previous four seasons. And even Yu Darvish represents a marginal upgrade over now-free agent starter Jake Arrieta.
But now, the 2018 Cubs look similar to the 2017 Cubs, a team which underwhelmed fans expecting a 103-win season a la 2016 in perpetuity but a team which won 92 games, a (pretty high) number probably closer to their true talent. They upgraded slightly in the rotation—Darvish is a minor upgrade over Arrieta, and while a full season of Jose Quintana certainly improves the top of the rotation, Jon Lester is now 34 and took a noticeable step back in 2017, while new acquisition Tyler Chatwood, nominally the replacement for John Lackey, had a high-fours ERA and FIP last season. The bullpen now assumes the risk of Brandon Morrow over the relative certainty of Wade Davis. And the position players remain mostly the same, aside from deadline acquisition Alex Avila and Jon Jay.
But Darvish to Chicago doesn’t just improve the Cubs’ playoff odds by giving them a new starting pitcher—it keeps the Cardinals and the Milwaukee Brewers from signing him. Darvish will replace Mike Montgomery, projected for a 3.96 ERA and 4.13 FIP by ZiPS, in the Cubs rotation. The current Cardinals rotation includes three pitchers projected for a higher ERA than Montgomery (Michael Wacha, Miles Mikolas, and Adam Wainwright), with Wainwright also projected for a higher FIP. More dramatically, every Brewers starting pitcher is projected for a higher ERA and FIP than Montgomery, and unlike with the teams already employing Jose Quintana and Carlos Martinez, Yu Darvish would definitively be the ace in Milwaukee.
By ZiPS, the Darvish signing boosted the Cubs’ division odds from 58.4% to 71.9%, while their postseason odds (of winning the division or winning a Wild Card berth) jumped from 80.4% to 89.9%. As it stands, with Darvish on the Cubs and with the Cardinals standing pat on the rotation, the Cardinals are at 17.2% to win the division and 53.3% to make the playoffs in some capacity. Magically transporting Darvish to the Cubs puts the Cardinals at 31.8% for the division and 64.2% for the postseason.
You may have noticed that the playoff odds decreased less significantly than division odds, and if one were to assume that the Cardinals weren’t going to sign Darvish and that they were going to finish behind the Cubs anyway, this was arguably good news, as Wild Card contenders who would have been more dramatically improved by adding Yu Darvish (most notably the Brewers) also missed out on him.
But this is a huge assumption based in fatalism posing as realism—perhaps the Cardinals needed a few breaks, but a division title was always possible. It still is, but now it is going to require more breaks. And since Darvish was the top free agent on the market, and one who fulfilled a team need more directly than other top free agents such as J.D. Martinez or Eric Hosmer, no one move will make the Cardinals division favorites, or even at the level they were at before Saturday.
But this doesn’t mean it isn’t worth chipping away at the gap, as it also would deprive Wild Card threats such as the San Francisco Giants (who have a promising top three in Madison Bumgarner, Jeff Samardzija, and Johnny Cueto, but do not have a reliable back end of the rotation) or the Milwaukee Brewers (who, with Jimmy Nelson out of commission, are scrambling to assemble a rotation worthy of their refurbished outfield). The Brewers, meanwhile, have expressed interest in ex-Cardinal Lance Lynn, who would immediately be the team’s most accomplished starter, while the Cardinals have shown little interest since making him a qualifying offer in November.
The Cardinals have made some smart moves this off-season and have improved the team in many ways, but fan frustration over lack of spending on outside players is boiling over for a reason. The external free agent (i.e. not re-signing a former Cardinal) on whom the team has spent the most in franchise history, Mike Leake, was effectively given away to the Seattle Mariners. The Cubs have topped the Cardinals’ franchise record signing of Matt Holliday in three of the last four off-seasons (Jon Lester, Jason Heyward, and now Yu Darvish). And while the Cardinals have shown initiative, agreeing in principle to add the biggest contract in MLB history to their payroll earlier this off-season, they have not shown execution.
The Cardinals may have missed their opportunity to pass the Cubs for 2018 via free agency, but they can still use it to solidify themselves as front-runners for the franchise’s first playoff berth since 2015.