Following the 2014 season, Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Max Scherzer became a free agent, and more than a few St. Louis Cardinals fans dreamed that the Chesterfield, Missouri native, who later played at the collegiate level for the University of Missouri Tigers, would come to St. Louis. As it turned out, Scherzer signed with the Washington Nationals to a seven-year, $210 million contract and spent the first three years of his time in DC being worth every penny. By FanGraphs’s measure, Scherzer has been worth $144.1 million so far.
In retrospect, the Cardinals should have signed Max Scherzer, a point which has been addressed on Viva El Birdos. But at the time, while there was clamoring for him, it was not nearly as obvious as it is now.
Max Scherzer, the 2014-15 free agent, was a terrific pitcher—he had already won a Cy Young Award and many outlets, including MLB Trade Rumors, listed him as the top free agent on the market, ahead of fellow starting pitchers Jon Lester (who has been a good signing, though not as overwhelmingly so as Scherzer) and James Shields (who has accumulated fewer FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement over the last three years than I have). But he wasn’t quite “arguably the best pitcher in baseball” good yet—in the first half of the 2010s, Scherzer ranked 7th by fWAR and 9th by bWAR.
From a Cardinals perspective, there wasn’t really a pressing need for a starting pitcher. The team entered 2015 with a rotation comprised of Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, John Lackey, Michael Wacha, and Carlos Martinez, with Martinez only cracking the rotation because Jaime Garcia opened the season on the Disabled List (and only remaining in the rotation because of an Adam Wainwright injury). Only Wainwright entered the season considered comparable to Scherzer, but there wasn’t a hole in the rotation nor a major need for depth—the team could even afford to part with 2014 starter Shelby Miller in order to fill the team’s right field hole with Jason Heyward.
Not signing Max Scherzer, knowing what we knew following 2014, made sense because of relative strengths and weaknesses. The Cardinals had an abundance of relatively young starting pitching so it made more sense to target a young, star right fielder than a costly ace.
Yu Darvish, most recently of the Los Angeles Dodgers, is not the caliber of starting pitcher that Max Scherzer was when he became a free agent, and he certainly isn’t as highly regarded as Scherzer is now. Since joining the Texas Rangers from Japan in 2012, Darvish has been worth a tad under 3.2 fWAR per season (including the 2015 season which he missed due to injury); per 180 innings, a rough approximation of a typical, healthy starting pitcher season, Darvish has been worth just over 4.1 fWAR, a plateau reached by 14 pitchers last season. He has been a good pitcher, but aside from a 2013 season in which he was a Cy Young runner-up (to Max Scherzer, ironically), Yu Darvish hasn’t been an inner-circle ace.
But Darvish does not need to be that pitcher to make sense for the Cardinals. With or without Max Scherzer, the Cardinals were going to enter 2015 as National League Central favorites—not only did they end up winning 100 games en route to a division title, but they did so largely on the strength of their starting rotation. Michael Wacha posted a 3.37 ERA and was, pretty definitively, their worst starter that season.
Meanwhile, the 2018 Cardinals, as they currently stand, are entering the season with an array of question marks in the rotation. Carlos Martinez is a relatively safe bet, at least as far as starting pitchers go, but certainty drops off greatly from there. Michael Wacha was effective in 2017 but has had some injury concerns in the past (although these concerns may be a bit overstated). Luke Weaver has looked impressive at times but has logged fewer than 100 career MLB innings. Miles Mikolas is an intriguing pitcher, given his success in Nippon Professional Baseball, but he has not pitched in American baseball since 2014 and was ineffective at the time. And while Adam Wainwright has obviously been effective in the past, his 2017 (5.11 ERA, multiple DL stints, precipitous drops in velocity) and advanced age are cause for ample concern.
And even if all four of these starters were to turn in good-to-very good seasons in 2018 (any of the four individually could and it wouldn’t be that shocking, but for the stars to align so perfectly is highly unlikely), Wainwright will be a free agent following 2018. Wacha and Mikolas will be after 2019. The Cardinals have interesting pitchers waiting in the wings—Alex Reyes and Jack Flaherty have appeared in the Majors and Jordan Hicks is rapidly climbing the organization’s prospect rankings. But while these players provide upside, they do not provide certainty. Yu Darvish does. Perhaps neither Darvish nor Carlos Martinez is an inner-circle ace, but as a one-two punch, they are rather potent.
The other top pitching prospect on the market, former Chicago Cubs starter Jake Arrieta, has demonstrated higher peaks than Darvish, winning a Cy Young Award in 2015 while being only slightly less excellent the season before. But Arrieta has also been worse at his low points—before his age-28 season of 2014, Arrieta was considered a fringe MLB player and would be nobody’s definition of an ace, and while he was clearly MLB-caliber in 2017, his peripherals (a 4.16 fielding-independent pitching and a 4.11 xFIP) are a bit worrisome for anyone expecting that he will turn back into a superstar.
Jake Arrieta may have more potential to be great, but Yu Darvish has more potential to be good, and the relative likelihood of this outcome should be very appealing for a Cardinals team looking to play in October. By FanGraphs’s Depth Charts projections, the Cardinals are projected for the first NL Wild Card spot. By signing Darvish, the Cardinals would be within striking distance of the Chicago Cubs in the NL Central (while also depriving the Cubs, who could use a starting pitcher to take Arrieta’s spot in the rotation, of signing Darvish), and would build a further buffer between themselves and the Arizona Diamondbacks and San Francisco Giants for a Wild Card spot.
Unlike trading for Chris Archer (a move I support in and of itself), signing Yu Darvish would not require the Cardinals to move prospects to make it happen. While the Cardinals should be willing to part with any single prospect in their system in order to acquire a near-ace like Archer for four years and a total of $33.7 million, including Alex Reyes, the loss of a major prospect would undoubtedly hurt.
While Darvish will be far more costly in terms of financial obligations than Archer, the vast majority of Darvish’s annual salary will be freed up following 2018, when the $19.5 million annual salary of Adam Wainwright comes off the books. And Darvish’s salary should be lower than that of Giancarlo Stanton, whose salary the Cardinals showed earlier this off-season they could afford to add.
Championship teams in this era are not built through signing top dollar free agents—they are built through developing a strong roster which can and should be supplemented by signing free agents who fill a need. Yu Darvish is not a superstar-level pitcher who will turn around the fortunes of whatever franchise signs him, but he is a very good pitcher who can be an important piece of an otherwise good roster which has a need for his services. The 2018 St. Louis Cardinals are that team.