On the threshold of pitchers and catchers reporting to open spring training, one prominent pitcher has found a way through the actual or allegedly paralytic free agency market into a Cubs uniform. Yu Darvish, last seen being nuked by the Astros in Game Seven of the World Series, has signed for six years and $125 million. Some call it a bargain, considering Darvish projected to six and $154 million on expected performance. Others call it a big risk. There may be a little of both involved.
Any hysteria involving this winter’s baseball market has been more rhetorical than economic. The Major League Baseball Players Association has argued that teams are more interested in pinching pennies than pitching, or hitting; the owners have denied the dreaded C word applies, never mind that their history suggests such denials often indicate a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on regardless.
There are plausible arguments that the Players Association outsmarted themselves when negotiating the current collective bargaining agreement. Sports Illustrated‘s Tom Verducci isolated the point last week:
The union lost the CBA negotiations because it was obsessed with “quality of life” issues, such as days off, empty seats on buses, and clubhouse chefs, and because many players railed against the idea of a worldwide draft—a huge red herring. The worldwide draft was a bluff; it’s too hard to get international communities and government agencies to cooperate on such a system. But when the owners essentially said, “Ok, you win, we’ll take the international draft off the table,” the union celebrated a Pyrrhic win: it “won” something that was never there and never would be there.
“Economic issues? They took their eye off the ball,” Verducci continued, “and the error is showing up on the scoreboard now that the intellect of front offices has risen to an all-time high.”
George F. Will also reminds us that the players’ union was just as interested in competitive balance—which has been (ha! you thought you’d escape me mentioning this again?) higher in baseball since its free agency began than in any other professional team sport—as anyone else. When wringing out the current CBA, Will reminds us, the union
. . . agreed to a competitive balance tax of 20 percent on any portion of a payroll over $197 million, with the rate rising to 30 and 50 percent on second and third consecutive seasons over the threshold. This is what the MLBPA knew it was designed to be: a disincentive for spending, especially by the wealthiest teams, for the purpose of enhancing competitive balance.” (Emphasis in the original.)
There are teams who probably chose to economise this winter the better to be loaded for bear or at least for the possible most glittering free agency class baseball will face yet—next winter’s. Washington’s Bryce Harper, Baltimore’s Manny Machado, Los Angeles’s Clayton Kershaw, San Francisco’s Madison Bumgarner. Show me a team who wouldn’t like a crack at one of those four, including their incumbent teams, and I’ll show you a team whose management is in need of psychiatric attention.
Many have pointed this winter to the recent pasts of the Cubs and the Astros, two teams said to have “tanked” on behalf of rebuilding. “The Cubs’ and Astros’ successes have encouraged other teams to engage in what the MLBPA says is a ‘race to the bottom’,” Will continues.
Actually, teams that are tearing down old and mediocre rosters are accepting a plunge in order to produce momentum for a surge to the top. What fans most dislike, and what constitutes baseball malpractice, is consistent mediocrity — teams not talented enough to play in October but not bad enough to receive the right to draft the best young talent.
Darvish probably has no complaints about his new deal and his new job. It could net him $150 million if he wins a Cy Young Award or two, based on reported incentives; it could prove a bigger bargain for the Cubs if, after a couple of very successful seasons, Darvish exercises an opt-out clause after two years. With no certainty of re-signing Jake Arrieta and with veteran John Lackey retiring, the Cubs needed Darvish with or without Arrieta.
Darvish has been a good pitcher who can be great; he’s overcome injuries; he pitched well enough as a Dodger last season after they landed him in a trade deadline deal. He pitched very well in the postseason until his wounding flaw got him annihilated in the World Series: tipping pitches. He kept his glove wrist still when preparing for a fastball but let it wiggle just so when preparing for a breaking ball.
The Astros caught on early and often, especially in Game Seven. It only began when George Springer opened the game with a double that led to the first Houston run on a misplay by Cody Bellinger and continued when Springer unloaded a two-run homer the next inning to send Darvish out of a game the Dodgers still could have won if they hadn’t looked Lance McCullers’s gift horses in the mouths.
Be very certain the Cubs’ pitching brain trust will work with Darvish to correct that. The Dodgers won’t have the chance because, according to several reports, their very comparable offer to the one made by the Cubs was based on “contingency,” on moving payroll elsewhere otherwise. Signing Darvish would have bumped the Dodgers above the luxury tax they’re trying to stay below, and there’s one good reason they don’t want to bump above—they want to be ready to roll if Kershaw opts out of his current contract but wants to stay a Dodger.
Right now Darvish has the longest and richest deal of this winter. Threats of conducting a separate spring training for unsigned free agents to one side for the moment, the deal isn’t as risky as you might think even for a pitcher with a history of Tommy John surgery. Darvish is only 31. As Will notes, in today’s baseball 32 is the new 36. Also, Darvish’s deal may not be that likely to open a signing floodgate for another reason not often considered during the winter hand-wringing.
Baseball at this moment is an all-or-nothing game: hitters either strike out or hit for distance. They don’t mess with Mr. In Between, though that shouldn’t last very much longer, either, baseball also being a cyclical game. Just as the 1950s (the alleged Golden Age) was very much an all-or-nothing game with a few notable exceptions, this all-or-nothing era, too, shall pass soon enough.
But the market this winter was glutted with the all-or-nothings. Some, as Mr. Will noted, spurned generous enough offers. “Their agents,” he said, “Their agents should have anticipated softening demand for a surplus commodity.” Unfortunately, some agents such as whomever represents J.D. Martinez can’t, or don’t.
Martinez could have gotten a million less for a year less from the Red Sox than Darvish gets from the Cubs, assuming Darvish doesn’t opt out after two. But Martinez instead is “fed up” with a measly five years and $125 million. He hit 45 bombs between the Tigers and the Diamondbacks last year, drove in 104 runs, and was worth a mere 2.6 wins above a replacement-level player—that’s what ho-hum defense and about a 2.6-to-1 strikeout-to-walk rate at the plate does to you.
The Red Sox would have been his ideal fit. They need more power, and Martinez’s skill set spells designated hitter. But he was “fed up” with five and $125 million. The owners may or may not have played a kind of sleight of hand this winter, but the players didn’t do themselves any favours, either. That started when they outsmarted themselves negotiating the current CBA. The next CBA negotiation promises to be a big test for MLBPA chief Tony Clark. And, a spellbinder, if you like that sort of thing.
Meanwhile, the Cubs can have more than a little fun picking Darvish’s brain over something else: that psychological warfare plate appearance he had against Carl Edwards, Jr. with the bases loaded in the top of the sixth, in Game Three of last fall’s National League Championship Series. Darvish would have made Crazy Jimmy Piersall proud. He showed bunt and psyched Edwards into a four-pitch RBI walk.
An extra mind-gamer won’t exactly hurt the Cubs’ chances of going back to the World Series this year. Assuming Edwards doesn’t kill Darvish first.