As they seek a return to the World Series after winning it in 2016, the Chicago Cubs are a rare team that's done its part to breathe life into Major League Baseball's hot stove.
Yet their starting rotation still lacks a replacement for former Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta. Simply re-signing him is one option; an even better one, however, is a pivot to Yu Darvish.
There are strong indications the Cubs have already figured this out. Bruce Levine of CBS Chicago noted on December 16 that Darvish was on the team's radar. He and Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports subsequently reported the two sides had met:
Jon Heyman @JonHeyman
sources: cubs are indeed meeting with yu. they have cast a wide net on free-agent/trade markets for a top starting pitcher. cobb, lynn, arrieta, duffy, archer among other possibilities. https://t.co/enuahpAKTm2017-12-18 21:54:34
Since then, the only rustling in this corner of the rumor mill was Darvish himself reaching into the overplayed hashtags barrel and dropping #fakenews on a report that he and the Cubs had reached a deal.
However, since the hot stove is presently cold enough for a wampa infestation, a union between Darvish and the Cubs is worth talking about just to pass the time. More to the point, it's worth taking seriously because there might not be a better team-player match to be found this winter.
As a four-time All-Star who's coming off a solid 3.86 ERA over 186.2 innings in 2017, Darvish has a strong claim to the title of the offseason's best free agent. He's also not tied to draft-pick compensation since he was barred from receiving a qualifying offer, which should make him extra desirable.
Unfortunately for the 31-year-old, most of MLB's big spenders either can't spend a lot of money this winter or simply don't want to. What is fortunate for him, though, is the Cubs are an exception.
They've already committed $82 million to Tyler Chatwood, Drew Smyly, Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek. With $36.6 million in space still between them and the $197 million luxury tax threshold, they can afford to add Darvish for, say, $25 million-$30 million per year without signing up to pay any penalties.
It would be cheaper for the Cubs to re-sign Arrieta. But that would still require a significant investment, and they would be going to a pitcher who's trending in a direction that teams don't want significant investments to trend.
Arrieta had a quiet breakout with a 2.53 ERA across 156.2 innings in 2014 and then romped his way to a Cy Young with a 1.77 ERA across 229 innings in 2015. But his ERA rose to 3.10 in 2016 and then to 3.53 in 2017, the latter of which was compiled over just 168.1 innings.
Granted, the contact being made against Darvish the last time he pitched was downright ear-splitting. After allowing just two runs over 11.1 innings in his first two postseason starts (one of which was against the Cubs in the National League Championship Series) with the Los Angeles Dodgers, he got lit up by the Houston Astros for nine runs over 3.1 innings in two World Series starts.
But as Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated reported, the shellacking of Darvish came courtesy of him tipping his pitches. That's easy to fix. And he doesn't need many fixes on top of that.
Although Darvish is a Tommy John survivor who's only 163 days younger than Arrieta, his stuff is just fine. He's coming off a career-best fastball average of 94.2 mph. And after some initial struggles, the Dodgers helped revive his slider's whiff habit in August and September.
Via FanGraphs, min. 800 IP
This ought to be music to the Cubs' ears. A low contact rate was a driving force behind their starting pitching staff's torrid run through 2016. Alas, their starters were one of the biggest losers in contact rate from 2016 to 2017. That contributed to an ERA slump from 3.15 to 3.95.
Another thing worth throwing out there is the Cubs may also be just the team to squeeze further potential out of Darvish.
The ugly 178-point gap in his OPS splits versus lefty batters (.778 OPS) and righty batters (.600 OPS) in 2017 was a variation on a frustrating theme. A possible cure for that is a dependable off-speed pitch, which Darvish has always lacked. He peaked at 5.8 percent splitters in 2012, and at 3.9 percent changeups in 2014.
The Cubs now employ Jim Hickey as their pitching coach. He previously oversaw a Tampa Bay Rays staff that, as Travis Sawchik of FanGraphs noted, worked wonders with changeups of all shapes and sizes. The fast-moving, sharp-breaking splitter/changeup hybrids preferred by Alex Cobb and Jake Odorizzi sound like just the weapon for Darvish, who generally favors movement over changing speeds.
Even if it's asking too much for Hickey to wave a magic wand and enchant Darvish with a new pitch, he wouldn't need to be better than he already is to earn his keep in Chicago. Where most teams would need him to be a steady No. 1, the Cubs have Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana to pick up the slack.
Add Darvish to the mix, and Chicago's rotation instantly becomes one of the best in baseball. With Morrow and Cishek, the club's bullpen has already gotten necessary upgrades following a rough showing in 2017. Meanwhile, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo still anchor a lineup that excels on offense and defense.
At the very least, that's a team that would be safely above the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central pecking order. More likely, the Cubs would be right there with the Dodgers and Washington Nationals in the broader scheme of things. As it is, FanGraphs' projections for 2018 already offer enough to argue the point.
The Cubs snapped a 108-year drought when they won the World Series in 2016. If they add Darvish, they'll have what they need to stop their current drought at one year.