Just when it seemed like the Chicago Cubs were going to enter spring training with a major hole on their roster, they've gone and filled it in the best way possible.
All it took was dropping $126 million on Yu Darvish.
Now, a couple asterisks are in order here. According to Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, the six-year contract that Darvish reportedly agreed to on Saturday could end up being worth $150 million if he wins "multiple" Cy Young Awards. Or, the Cubs could ultimately pay him less than $126 million. Per Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports, Darvish's deal has an opt-out after 2019.
Also, everyone is still waiting for the Cubs to confirm the signing.
Assuming all this is true, however, it can nonetheless be acknowledged that they've made out very well.
When the 2017-18 Major League Baseball offseason first began, projections for Darvish's contract—e.g. from Bleacher Report, MLB Trade Rumors and FanGraphs—fell in the range of six years and $26-28 million per year. The Cubs have followed the six-year blueprint, but at just $21 million per year.
The lower-than-expected average annual value is good for their luxury-tax standing. That will be especially relevant a year from now when they'll be chasing Bryce Harper and other superstars on a loaded free-agent market.
In the meantime, the Cubs can celebrate the much more immediate benefit of signing of Darvish: A starting rotation that had been a point of concern is now anything but.
Per FanGraphs, using RA-9 WAR.
In posting an MLB-best 2.96 ERA over a National League-high 989 innings, Cubs starters more than did their part in helping the team win 103 games and a long-awaited World Series title in 2016.
They simply couldn't maintain that performance in 2017, however. They managed only 888.1 innings and a 4.05 ERA.
Neither Jon Lester nor Jake Arrieta nor John Lackey pitched like their usual selves. Kyle Hendricks did in the latter half of the year, but not before he struggled out of the gate and spent over a month on the disabled list. And up until Jose Quintana arrived via a blockbuster trade in July, the Cubs wasted too many starts on Brett Anderson, Eddie Butler and Mike Montgomery.
After the Los Angeles Dodgers beat the Cubs in the 2017 National League Championship Series, it was clear that their starting rotation would be a major offseason project. At the very least, they would have two spots to upgrade once Arrieta and Lackey were let loose into free agency.
The signing of Tyler Chatwood to a three-year, $38 million contract took care of one spot.
Chatwood, 28, isn't much of a workhorse, as he's never pitched more than 158 innings in a season. But it does catch one's eye that he put up a 3.18 ERA away from Coors Field during his time with the Colorado Rockies. He also has a talent for inducing ground balls (54.7 GB%) that will play well with the Cubs' infield. Thus, he should do better than the 4.59 ERA that the Cubs got from Lackey in 2017.
And now the Cubs have Darvish, who ought to be better than Arrieta.
Whereas Arrieta's performance has been slipping since his epic Cy Young-winning 2015 season, Darvish is carrying on just fine. The 31-year-old put up a 3.86 ERA over 186.2 innings last season. The year before, he returned from a 2015 Tommy John operation to post a 3.41 ERA in 100.1 innings.
Granted, the fact that Darvish has already had a major elbow operation is a red flag. Another red flag is that he did his best work before the surgery, posting a 3.27 ERA across his first three major league seasons with the Texas Rangers.
It's a good sign, however, that neither age nor injury have robbed Darvish's arm of its liveliness.
He's enjoyed the best fastball velocity of his career over the last two seasons, peaking with an average of 94.2 mph in 2017. Between that and a deep arsenal of secondary pitches that's still led by his trusty slider, he has what he needs to carry on as one of baseball's best strikeout artists.
Darvish's career rate of 11.0 strikeouts per nine innings is the best in history among all starting pitchers who've made at least 100 starts. His 10.7 K/9 since 2016 only falls slightly short of that mark, yet still ranks ahead of Corey Kluber (10.6) and Clayton Kershaw (10.4).
One nit worth picking is that Darvish does give up a lot of home runs. But his strikeout habit isn't the only thing he has to downplay that. He's also improving his control as time goes by. To wit, his walk rate has been below the league average in each of the last two seasons.
As for Darvish's postseason track record, it's a bad look that he has a 5.81 ERA in six career October starts. It's a worse look that he got absolutely shelled in the two starts he made for the Los Angeles Dodgers in last year's World Series.
But according to Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated, that may have been because Darvish was tipping his pitches. Assuming he's learned his lesson, he's not necessarily doomed to additional October struggles.
Even before the Cubs signed Darvish, it was possible to have faith in Lester and Hendricks bouncing back and combining with Quintana and Chatwood to form one of MLB's best starting rotations in 2018. With Darvish now in the fold, the Cubs have a starting rotation that measures up against anyone's.
Meanwhile, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo still anchor a deep and multitalented lineup that's excelled on both offense and defense over the last two seasons. And while Wade Davis is notably missing from Chicago's bullpen, the additions of Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek should make up for that.
At least on paper, the Cubs are now safely ahead of revamped versions of the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central. Even better, they have everything they need to go toe-to-toe with the Dodgers and Washington Nationals for the National League pennant.
All in all, not a bad way to cap their offseason.