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Do the Dodgers, Yankees or Cubs Need Yu Darvish Splash Most Desperately?

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterFebruary 1, 2018

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 01:  Yu Darvish #21 of the Los Angeles Dodgers walks to the dugout after being relieved during the second inning against the Houston Astros in game seven of the 2017 World Series at Dodger Stadium on November 1, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

The biggest fish on Major League Baseball's free-agent market may or may not be waiting to be scooped up by the biggest possible net.

The new year is already into its second month, meaning spring training is close enough to touch. Yet like many free agents, ace right-hander Yu Darvish remains unsigned. 

The hard-throwing, slider-slinging veteran presumably wants as much money as he can get. So it's not surprising to hear he might be waiting for the Los Angeles Dodgers or New York Yankees to clear payroll for the sake of signing him.

Reporter Ken Rosenthal said as much on MLB Network Monday (via Mike Mazzeo of the New York Daily News): "What are the odds of the Yankees or Dodgers doing such a thing? Probably somewhat slim, but that's why this thing isn't over just yet."

Meanwhile, the Chicago Cubs are another big-ticket franchise that could be after Darvish. On January 24, Patrick Mooney of The Athletic reported that the Cubs were "setting their sights" on the 31-year-old.

There is the field to consider as well. Other possible fits for Darvish include the Milwaukee Brewers, Minnesota Twins and Texas Rangers, who first brought him to the States from Japan in 2012.

But if a full-on bidding war breaks out, it would be hard for any of those teams to beat the Dodgers, Yankees or Cubs. The question would then become, which of them would blink first? That could be decided simply by which team needs him the most.

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To that end, here are some quick rankings.

                      

3. The Dodgers

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 01:  Yu Darvish #21 of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitches in the first inning against the Houston Astros in game seven of the 2017 World Series at Dodger Stadium on November 1, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Tim Bradbu
Tim Bradbury/Getty Images

The Dodgers are the team Darvish pitched for most recently, and it was mostly a successful partnership.

His two disastrous starts in the World Series were no help to a losing cause. Before that, however, he put up a 3.44 ERA in nine regular-season starts and allowed just two runs through 11.1 innings in his first two postseason starts.

Apparently, Darvish enjoyed his time in Los Angeles so much his preference is to return.

"My understanding is that Yu Darvish has made clear he would like to return to the Dodgers," wrote Andy McCullough of the Los Angeles Times. "And part of the delay in his free agency is related to waiting to see if the team can move some of the money."

The Dodgers are only $17.4 million short of the $197 million luxury tax threshold for 2018. That's likely not enough for Darvish, who could probably command at least $25 million per year.

The payroll space needed to sign him would probably have been cleared long ago if the Dodgers needed him. The reality is they don't. 

L.A.'s starting rotation has a perfectly good ace named Clayton Kershaw. He owns three Cy Young awards and is coming off his fifth National League ERA title. Behind him is a deep collection of experienced arms (Rich Hill, Alex Wood, Kenta Maeda and Hyun-Jin Ryu) and one young wild card (Walker Buehler).

Plus, the Dodgers have little need to worry about their standing in the NL West. They are mostly bringing back the same team whose 104-58 record won the division by 11 games last season. The Arizona Diamondbacks (93-69) and Colorado Rockies (87-75) were their closest pursuers, and it's a stretch to call either of them better than they were a year ago.

This is not to say the Dodgers are immune from running into complications down the line. But with no pressure to act now, the smart play is to save as many assets as they can for midseason adjustments.

                      

2. The Yankees

Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

If there's one area where the Yankees differ from the Dodgers, it's that they need to be thinking about their standing in their division.

They didn't win the AL East last year, as their 91-71 record put them two games behind the 93-69 Boston Red Sox. And while such things are hardly gospel, FanGraphs' projections for 2018 see the two clubs as being worthy of the same 91-71 record.

Signing Darvish, who put up a 3.42 ERA and struck out 11 batters per nine innings in his five seasons in the American League, would tip the scales in New York's favor.

The Yankees don't need to clear as much payroll for Darvish. They have $20.8 million in luxury tax space. Trading Jacoby Ellsbury and his $21.9 million-per-year contract would give them all the space they need. Failing that, even trading one of their many relievers (e.g., Dellin Betances) could be good enough.

Where the Yankees are in the same boat as the Dodgers, however, is in regard to whether they need a pitcher of Darvish's caliber.

Luis Severino established himself as an ace with his huge breakout in 2017. Behind him is a solid No. 2 (Masahiro Tanaka) and a solid No. 3 (Sonny Gray). CC Sabathia and Jordan Montgomery don't inspire too much confidence at the back end but are good enough not to generate doom and gloom. Go further down the depth chart, and you will find MLB-ready arms attached to Justus Sheffield and Chance Adams.

New York's rotation is one of the best in baseball as is. All signing Darvish would accomplish is turning it into arguably the best, which is more of a luxury than a necessity.

Particularly in light of how the Yankees have bigger needs elsewhere. For example, as promising as Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar look, it wouldn't hurt for the Yankees to add a more experienced player to play second base and/or third base.

                    

1. The Cubs

Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

If nothing else, the Cubs are the best fit of these three clubs from a monetary standpoint.

They only have $159.8 million on their books for 2018. That's short of the $170-plus million payrolls they opened with in 2016 and 2017. It also equates to $32.6 million in luxury tax space.

So there's that. There's also this: The Cubs have a genuine need for Darvish.

Chicago's rotation is one of the 10 best in baseball. But built into that is a large assumption Jon Lester will bounce back from a rocky 2017 season and make the Cubs forget all about losing Jake Arrieta and John Lackey to free agency.

If that doesn't happen, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana will be the Cubs' only top-of-the-rotation types. Even if it does happen, just four of the five slots will be occupied by dependable starters. The last is up for grabs between Eddie Butler and Mike Montgomery, neither of whom is especially good.

No matter which way you spin it, Darvish would fill a need for Chicago. And just as much as the Yankees and much more so than the Dodgers, the Cubs have incentive to fill it.

They are coming off a 2017 season in which their win total decreased to 92 from 103 the year before. The St. Louis Cardinals (83-79) and Milwaukee Brewers (86-76) each finished within striking distance in the NL Central race.

Both clubs clearly smell blood in the water. The Cardinals made a big play for Marcell Ozuna in December. More recently, the Brewers made huge splashes by acquiring Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich.

Put it this way: It's no wonder the Cubs suddenly have Darvish in their sights. 

                   

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs. Luxury tax data courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts.

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