By Cliff Corcoran
The dam holding back the flow of free-agent signings this winter isn't quite ready to break just yet, but, with pitchers and catchers due to report one month from Saturday, it is starting to leak. On Wednesday, outfielder Jay Bruce agreed to the third-largest contract of this offseason, a $39 million, three-year deal to return to the Mets. That evening, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that Yu Darvish, the top pitcher on the market, narrowed his search to five teams: the Rangers, Yankees, Cubs, Astros and Twins. Darvish himself then referenced a sixth mystery team, which the Los Angeles Times believes to be the Dodgers.
The news that the other 24 teams are off the board still qualifies as progress toward what could be one of the most impactful free-agent signings of this offseason. Just how impactful? Here's a quick look at what can be expected from Darvish in 2018 and how he might fit with each of his six reported finalists.
Six seasons have passed since Darvish came to the Major Leagues from Nippon Professional Baseball. For Darvish, three of those seasons (2014-16) were impacted by an elbow injury that led to Tommy John surgery in March 2015. In the other three seasons, he has averaged 196 innings, 236 strikeouts and 76 walks per year with a cumulative 3.51 ERA, 1.17 WHIP and 3.11 strikeout-to-walk ratio, while striking out 29.2 percent of the batters he has faced.
Darvish has been even better than those raw numbers. The ERA is inflated by the fact that half of his Major League starts have come at the hitter-friendly ballpark in Arlington. In his 48 starts outside of Arlington in those three seasons, his ERA was 3.28. The WHIP and K/BB, meanwhile, are inflated by the wildness of his rookie year. Darvish walked 4.2 men per nine innings in his first Major League season, a figure that has decreased steadily since then. Eliminate that season of adjustment to the Major Leagues, and Darvish has posted a 1.12 WHIP and 3.52 K/BB in his other two healthy seasons and a 2.96 ERA outside of Arlington. However you slice it, his performance in those three seasons has been worth an average of anywhere from 4.2 wins above replacement (per FanGraphs) to an even 6 WAR (per Baseball Prospectus) per season.
Darvish isn't without his question marks. Beyond the Tommy John surgery, he'll turn 32 in August, he typically misses a start or two every season due to a stiff neck or back and his 5.81 ERA in six postseason starts is an eyesore. However, that last number was ruined by his brutal World Series performance, which was actually the result of Darvish unwittingly tipping his pitches. Darvish held the D-backs and Cubs to just two runs in 11 1/3 innings while striking out 14 in his first two starts last October, and he struck out seven without allowing a walk or a home run in a quality start in the 2012 American League Wild Card Game, his only other winner-take-all start in the Majors prior to last year's Game 7. Whatever reasons a team may have for balking at making a big offer to Darvish, his postseason record shouldn't be one of them.
Darvish isn't as dominant as perennial Cy Young contenders such as Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Corey Kluber and Chris Sale. However, he is in the very next group with the likes of Zack Greinke, Jon Lester and Stephen Strasburg, a group I like to think of as the 1A starters, just a half-step behind the game's best.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Projected rotation: Clayton Kershaw (L), Rich Hill (L), Alex Wood (L), Kenta Maeda, Hyun-Jin Ryu (L)
New York Yankees
Projected rotation: Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka, Sonny Gray, CC Sabathia (L), Jordan Montgomery (L)
The Dodgers and Yankees are in a similar position as suitors for Darvish, so let's discuss them together. Both played deep into the postseason last year: The Dodgers won their first pennant since 1988 with Darvish's help, and the Yankees reached Game 7 of the American League Championship Series without it. Both have ostensibly full rotations, with an ace up top and additional depth below, including a top prospect arguably ready to step into the rotation no later than midseason (Chance Adams for the Yankees; Walker Buehler, who got a cup of coffee in the Major League bullpen last September, for the Dodgers).
Both teams are also trying to stay under the $197 million competitive-balance tax threshold in 2018 to reset their tax penalties. Per Cot's Baseball Contracts, the Dodgers, as currently constructed, are projected to have a payroll just under $183 million, while the Yankees are projected at just under $181 million. That leaves Los Angeles and New York with roughly $16 and $14 million left to spend this offseason, respectively. That won't be enough to afford Darvish, and a backloaded deal won't help, as payroll for the purposes of the competitive-balance tax is calculated using the average annual value of each contract.
Both teams have already made payroll-reducing trades, the Dodgers in the massive Matt Kemp swap with the Braves and the Yankees in sending Chase Headley back to the Padres. They would have to make at least one more trade of that kind to both sign Darvish and remain under the tax threshold, with Kemp and Jacoby Ellsbury the likely targets. Alternatively, both could decide that they were close enough to a championship last year that adding Darvish would be worth the tax penalty. Still, because of the depth in their rotations and the limits of their payroll flexibility, both seem to be among the least likely of Darvish's remaining suitors to sign him.
Projected rotation: Cole Hamels (L), Doug Fister, Matt Moore (L), Mike Minor (L), Martin Perez (L)
The Rangers' payroll limitations are self-inflicted, with ownership looking to cut roughly $10 million from last year's payroll to get back down around $155 million in 2018. Still, depending on the source, they appear to be at least $20 million below that target, which could allow them to make a competitive offer for Darvish.
Texas clearly could use a major upgrade in a rotation to which the team has already added Fister, Moore and Minor. Perez expects to open the season on the disabled list after breaking the radial head in his non-throwing elbow while dodging a bull on his ranch. Minor hasn't shouldered a starter's workload since 2014 but is attempting to transition out of the bullpen (something Matt Bush will also be attempting in camp, potentially taking Perez's spot to open the season). Meanwhile, Moore is coming off a brutal season in a pitcher-friendly ballpark in San Francisco. The question is whether or not the Rangers are a good enough team to justify the expense. In an AL West that includes the defending champion Astros (see below) and a much-improved Angels team, the Rangers face a tough battle even with Darvish. After all, Darvish made 22 starts for them last year, and they were 49-52 at the time. They finished the year with the worst third-order record in their division despite a post-trade surge in August.
To compete with the Astros, Yankees, Indians, Red Sox, Angels and Twins, the Rangers may need to add both a front-end starter and another bat, but they may not have enough payroll flexibility for both Darvish and Lorenzo Cain.
Projected rotation: Justin Verlander, Dallas Keuchel (L), Lance McCullers Jr., Charlie Morton, Collin McHugh
Despite the depth listed above, to which you can add Brad Peacock and Joe Musgrove and near-ready prospects David Paulino and Rogelio Armenteros, Astros owner Jim Crane told the media on Monday that his team is " actively pursuing a high-end starter." Wednesday brought reports that the team was trading for the Pirates' Gerrit Cole. That trade has not happened yet, but the two teams reportedly remain in discussions about Cole, as the Astros appear to be more interested in using their deep farm system to trade for a starter than in paying for one from their mid-market till. Still, with Keuchel and Morton heading into their walk years, the Astros could justify preemptive spending to replace them, and having Darvish, Verlander and Keuchel atop the rotation could make the Astros heavy favorites to repeat in 2018.
Projected rotation: Ervin Santana, Jose Berrios, Adalberto Mejia (L), Kyle Gibson, TBD
No team on this list needs Darvish quite like the Twins do, as their rotation drops off after the first two spots and disappears after the fourth. Their current fifth-starter hopefuls include Phil Hughes, who has had thoracic outlet revision surgery each of the past two seasons, the most recent in August of last year; 6-foot-10 Aaron Slegers, who has three Major League starts under his belt; former prospect Trevor May, who is coming off a year lost to Tommy John surgery, is now 28 and has a career 5.61 ERA in 25 starts; and Stephen Gonsalves, now the organization's top pitching prospect, who has made just five appearances above Double-A, two of them disasters.
The Twins are clearly aware of their need, as well as the fact that, with Brian Dozier and Joe Mauer entering their walk years, the time to strike is now. Making an impact at the top of the pitching market has been their stated goal from the start of this offseason, but so far their only additions have been aging relievers Fernando Rodney and Zach Duke. The Twins are hoping the pre-existing relationship between Darvish and general manager Thad Levine, who came over from the Rangers' organization, will give them something of an inside edge on Darvish. Meanwhile, chief executive officer Derek Falvey has said that he anticipates increasing payroll for 2018. As things stand, the Twins' projected Opening Day payroll is roughly $11 million below last year's Opening Day total. That would seem to leave room for them to make an offer to Darvish that's as aggressive as their rhetoric has been this offseason.
Projected rotation: Jon Lester (L), Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana (L), Tyler Chatwood, Mike Montgomery
Montgomery posted a 4.15 ERA in 14 starts last year and threw 130 2/3 innings between those starts and 30 relief appearances, so he would seem to be a viable fifth starter heading into 2017. However, the Cubs may prefer to keep him in the bullpen, where he has a career 2.29 ERA in 72 regular-season relief appearances. Darvish would clearly be a significant upgrade over Montgomery in the rotation, and bouncing Montgomery back to the 'pen would upgrade both units. Darvish would also be a likely upgrade on the performance Chicago got from fellow free-agent Jake Arrieta last year, while the vaunted Cubs lineup -- with both their bats and gloves -- could help Darvish put together a Cy Young Award-worthy season. The Cubs are so good that a year in which they won 92 games and went to the National League Championship Series was a disappointment. With Darvish, they could be the best team in baseball once again.
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Cliff Corcoran is a Sports on Earth contributor and a regular guest analyst on MLB Network. An editor or contributor to 13 books about baseball, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he spent 10 seasons covering baseball for SI.com and has also written for USA Today and SB Nation, among others.