The Cubs are said to be looking to clear payroll. Might one of their starting pitchers be available?
Spoiler alert #1: the Jays need more pitching. Although the young guns (like Thornton / Borucki / Kay / Waguespack / Zeuch et al) show a lot of promise, and many (most?) could be legitimate MLB rotation options in time, it would be best for the team and for their development if they are not expected to assume top-of-rotation responsibilities in 2020.
Spoiler alert #2: there are many teams looking for starting pitching this off-season, so even though there are many decent-to-good free agent pitchers, the competition for them is intense. And Toronto is not at the top of many of their lists – even if the Jays do overpay.
The upshot of this is that the Jays may be forced to place greater emphasis on the trade market to fill their pitching needs. But this option also has problems. As Ross Atkins put it,
"“Giving up talent that could be paired with Vladdy and Bo (Bichette) and (Nate) Pearson and that group for a player that might only be here for one or two years is a hard thing to do,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that we won’t. It’s just the players that teams are going to want for a player (with) one or two years with contract years remaining are going to be players that we’re really excited about matching up with that young core that we have.”"
So the Jays face a conundrum. They could acquire more Chase Anderson types at minimal cost, thus preserving the “talent” that Atkins refers to above. But the Jays arguably have enough #4 starters with #3 upside. Or, alternatively, they could trade for a legitimate #1 starter. But that would likely come at a significant cost in terms of dollars and prospects, which could adversely affect the rebuild.
Toronto Blue Jays
There is a third option, however. That is to trade for a starting pitcher with #1 upside (and for clarity, by “#1 starter” I do not mean a Scherzer/Verlander-level ace, but rather a solid 4+ WAR contributor) but who comes with issues that increase his risk (and thus decrease his price). In short, the Jays could gamble.
I have written articles in the past about the case for trading for Matt Boyd (red flag = short track record and a poor second half of 2019), acquiring David Price (red flag = age-related decline in health and performance and high cost), and gambling on Corey Kluber (red flag = poor start of 2019 and substantial lost time due to injury). In each case, there are good statistical reasons to believe that the player has high upside, but the risk of a flame-out is very real. But in each case, the risks might lower the price to one the Jays could live with.
So now let’s talk about the Chicago Cubs.
The Cubbies won the World Series in 2016 after dominating in the regular season with 103 wins. At the time, many writers talked about them as a potential dynasty – in fact, they were early favourites to repeat in 2017. But, as the saying goes, the only thing harder than reaching the top is staying on top. By 2019, despite having the second-highest payroll in baseball, the Cubs won only 84 games and did not make the playoffs. prompting Cubs President Theo Epstein to announce that “you are likely to see change in this organization”.
The first step in this “change” might well be clearing payroll space. And clearing payroll usually means trading veteran players who might not be at their peak value when the team is once again ready to compete.
The obvious Jay target would be Kyle Hendricks. His 2017-19 combined ERA of 3.33 was 19th best in baseball, and his 2019 xwOBA of .297 was 26th (minimum 500 PAs). He is only 30 years old, and is under a team-friendly contract through 2023, with a 2024 vesting option. Problem is, Hendricks would likely fall into the “giving up major talent” category – as in, how fond are you of Jordan Groshans or Alek Manoah?
But there is another possible trade option in the Cubs rotation. A player whose $22 million salary is the highest on the team (2020), and who still has four years and 81 million remaining on his contract. A player whose 2019 SIERA was top-10 in baseball (qualified starters), and whose xwOBA was 23rd (both better than Hendricks).
Yes, I am talking Yu Darvish.
When he is on and healthy, Darvish is a beast. His career average SIERA of 3.32 is 8th best in baseball (1000 IP) – behind players like Chris Sale, Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom. He had an excellent 2019 by any measure, and will play most of 2020 at 33 years old. He is projected by Steamer at 3.8 fWAR next year.
But – fortunately? – Darvish comes with red flags. Like David Price, he is in the declining phase of his career. So, it is reasonable to expect that he will not be able to maintain his 2019 performance level over the next four years, and like Corey Kluber, Darvish comes with significant injury concerns. He only pitched 40 innings in 2018, and 100 in 2016.
Red flags notwithstanding, Darvish could be a good fit for the Jays. He is a legitimate TOR starter when healthy, and brings a positive veteran presence (I was impressed that he is now giving interviews in English, rather than through an interpreter). Toronto’s greatest need is for a leader to bridge them to the next wave of young pitching, so even if the last year or two of Darvish’s contract provides less than full value, he could still have done his job. And, perhaps most importantly, Darvish might be available at a less-than-extortionate price, particularly if the Jays agreed to pay the full $81m remaining on his contract.
The bottom line
The usual caveats apply. Trading for Darvish would be a gamble, and gambles sometimes lose. Darvish has a no-trade clause, so Toronto would have to show him the love, and it is possible that other teams could outbid the Jays. But I see him as a realistic option and a good fit, particularly if the Cubs are (as reported) motivated sellers.
And if you *really* want to get funky – could a larger deal be possible? Ian Happ had a mini-breakout in 2019 but does not appear to be in the Cubs’ long-term plans. Might he be available? Tyler Chatwood has been a disappointment since signing his 3/$38m deal in 2017 – so much so, he was moved to a bullpen swingman role in 2019. Would the Cubs like to shed his remaining $13m? And I am not even going to let myself dream about the Jays picking up Kris Bryant.