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If the Cubs Sign Yu Darvish, the Cardinals’ Rotation Will Look Even Thinner

Remember when the Cardinals were said to have an advantage over the Cubs as the rivals moved into the future?

Pitching.

The Cardinals were drafting, developing and focusing on pitching. And the St. Louis pitching, arriving in waves, would be the great equalizer. The Cardinals’ pitching would neutralize, and then overtake, the Cubs’ successful buildup of lineup power.

After a few years of tanking in the standings to strengthen their chances of securing a place near the top of the annual June MLB draft, the Cubs pulled in Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ, and Albert Almora Jr. The Cubs went into the international market to sign Willson Contreras. They made excellent trades for Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell. They went free-agent shopping and bought Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward.

Cubs president of baseball ops Theo Epstein correctly surmised that there would be a power shortage in major-league baseball, and sluggers were hard to find. It wasn’t easy to come up with good bats, period. So the Cubs stockpiled the bats. The strategy worked.

The Cardinals theorized that the arms would eventually take back the game, and reestablish a competitive edge.

There’s no question that the Cardinals have a deep supply of intriguing young pitchers. Some are keepers. Some are potential trade chips. Some (Alex Reyes, Luke Weaver) already have landed in St. Louis. Others are close. You want young arms? The Cardinals have them.

Ah, but young arms break. Young arms go wild and can’t locate the strike zone.

Young arms can throw, and dazzle with their radar-gun readings … but throwing isn’t pitching.

So while we know that the Cardinals have a lot of arms, we don’t know how these arms will function in the future.

Right now, I can only see 2018 … and I’m not fired up by a Cubs-Cardinals comparison.

More on this in awhile.

As for the Cubs’ pitching — now and beyond the horizon — Epstein had work to do.

In comments offered to the great Peter Gammons and published by the excellent new site The Athletic, Epstein acknowledged the downside to his planning. The Cubs can put a fearsome lineup together, and that strength has been a big part of three consecutive appearances in the NL championship series, and the 2016 World Series title. But there was a cost: you won’t see much talented young pitching in the Chicago system. It’s scarce.

“We’re trying to do what the Royals and Astros did so well—bring along a team of positional players who grew up together, learned to win together, learned to lose together,” Epstein told Gammons. “I think we’ve done that.

“We try to work hard at every way to find pitching. It can be dangerous to go all in on the biggest names in the pitching free agent market every year. I’d say once every three years is probably the limit.

“But I will be the first to admit that since we’ve been here, we haven’t done a good job signing and developing pitching, and that starts with me. It’s something we’re trying to address in a number of ways, and we spend a lot of time sharing ideas and thoughts and concepts about how we get better.”

I can’t predict what the Chicago and STL rotations will look like in several years. If the Cardinals are fortunate, Alex Reyes will evolve into an ace, and the Cards will discover plenty of gold in their pitching-prospect compilation.

But you cannot deny this: Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer continue to assemble, and even reassemble a rotation that can make the most of the generous amount of runs supplied by the Cubs’ hitters.

A brief history of how it’s been done:

  • In an absolute steal, the Cubs gave up little to acquire the out-of-favor young starter, Jake Arrieta, from Baltimore. He only won a Cy Young and a World Series ring. Now a free agent, Arrieta gave the Cubs 94 starts, nearly 600 innings, 54 wins, 62 quality starts, and a 2.71 ERA during his team’s three-season rise to power (2015-2017.)
  • The Cubs spent a lot of loot to sign free agent Jon Lester …. $155 million over six years to be exact. Yeah, he’s getting older and has lost some steam. But Lester already has paid off. In his first three seasons after leaving Boston for Chicago, Lester has started 96 games, delivered 65 quality starts and 43 wins, supplied 588 innings and crafted a 3.33 ERA.
  • The Cubs spent a lot less money to lure John Lackey on a two-year deal for $32 million. Savvy move. In his two seasons with the Cubs (2016-2017) Lackey started 59 games, pitched 359 innings, put up a 3.94 ERA, and came through with 32 quality starts and 23 wins. Double bonus: The Lackey signing also weakened the Cardinals’ rotation. Double bonus.
  • Dismissing industry concerns over Kyle Hendricks’ average at best velocity, the Cubs gave the cerebral and composed young RHP his own place in the rotation. Smart. Over the past three seasons Hendricks started 86 games, pitched 510 innings, and was credited with 31 wins and 45 quality starts.
  • Side note: during the Cubs’ three-season postseason run (2015-2017) Lester,  Arrieta and Hendricks combined to start 28 games and were credited with 10 combined wins. You can see the meaningful impact right there; the three officially were the winning pitchers in 10 of the Cubs 19 postseason triumphs over that time.
  • Planning in advance to replace pending free agents Arrieta and Lackey the Cubs entered the trade market early in 2017 to acquire the terrific lefty Jose Quintana from the White Sox. The Cubs’ aggressiveness prevented other suitors from landing Quintana, and he boosted a tired rotation by going 7-3 with a 3.74 ERA in 14 starts.
  • Early this month the Cubs signed power-armed  RH Tyler Chatwood, investing three years and $38 million in his 95 mph fastball and road ERA during his time with the Colorado Rockies. Coors Field punished Chatwood; from 2012-2017 Chatwood was walloped for a 5.17 ERA and .466 slugging percentage at home, but had a very fine 3.18 ERA and a considerably lower slugging percentage allowed (.352) when pitching away from Coors. Chatwood missed the 2015 season after undergoing elbow surgery, but he seems ready to roll now.
  • Talk about advance planning … the Cubs recently made a free-agent signing designed to cover a rotation opening for 2019, giving a two-year deal to lefty Drew Smyly. Though Smyly probably will miss most (if not all) of the 2018 season as he rehabs from elbow surgery, the Cubs didn’t care. They are reserving a space for Smyly for in 2019 and he’ll bring his career 3.74 ERA into a Tampa Bay reunion with Cubs manager Joe Maddon and new Cubs pitching coach Jim Hickey.
  • The Cubs gave up a couple of their touted prospects to obtain Quintana, and they had to give up a couple of draft picks for their free-agent signings of Lester and Lackey. But other than that, Esptein and Hoyer have succeeded in constructing a very good rotation, and updating that rotation, without compromising their future. Any way you look at this objectively, this is outstanding work.

Still, it appears that the Cubs are a starter short for 2018  — unless they want to give the gig to lefty swingman Mike Montgomery.

Epstein evidently has another plan in mind:

Yu Darvish?

Epstein and Hoyer were in Dallas on Monday to meet with the free-agent righthander as he ponders choices in free agency. The Cubs aren’t alone in this. Darvish is drawing interest from the Astros, Rangers and Twins. The Yankees may check in on him as well.

Darvish, 31, worked 186.2 innings in a 2017 season split between the Rangers and Dodgers. He had another good year, averaging 11 strikeouts per nine innings with a 3.86 ERA. Darvish won postseason starts against the Diamondbacks and Cubs, allowing only two earned runs in 11.1 innings. But he got clobbered for a 21.60 ERA by the Astros in the World Series, lasting only 3.1 innings over two starts. One prevalent theory: Darvish was tipping pitches, and the astute Astros picked up on it.

In 132 MLB starts since coming to the Rangers in 2012 after an illustrious career in Japan, Darvish has a 3.42 ERA, has performed at a level that’s 26 percent above the league average, is a four-time All-Star, and has received Cy Young votes in two seasons. He finished second in the AL voting in 2013.

Since returning from a lost 2015 due to elbow surgery, Darvish has bounced back nicely over the last two seasons with a 3.70 ERA and 341 strikeouts in 287 innings. His adjusted ERA over that time is 23 percent above league average.

The Cubs have the money to sign Darvish. They can get it done without exceeding MLB’s $197 million payroll luxury-tax threshold. And Darvish has said he wants to pitch for a contender. As a bonus, the team that signs Darvish won’t have to give up compensatory draft picks since he was traded at the 2017 deadline.

If the Cubs are willing and able to reach a deal with Darvish, it’s a potentially discouraging development for the Cardinals. The Cubs, on paper, clearly would have the superior rotation in 2018.

OK, let’s just say that Darvish becomes a Cub.

I’ll try to slot the starting pitchers for each team.

You can take a look and decide what’s better:

No. 1 starter:   Jon Lester vs. Carlos Martinez

No. 2 starter:   Yu Darvish vs. Adam Wainwright

No. 3 starter:   Jose Quintana vs. Michael Wacha

No. 4 starter:   Kyle Hendricks vs. Luke Weaver

No. 5 starter:   Tyler Chatwood vs. Miles Mikolas

Let’s take these 10 starters and run them through the Steamer projections for 2018.

If Darvish is added, the Cubs’ rotation has a projected 16 wins above replacement. The Cardinals’ rotation has a projected WAR of 13.4. Frankly, I’m surprised it’s that close.

Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak continues to tell everyone that his team’s 2018 rotation is fine, and he has no concerns over the depth.

I hope Mozeliak is playing possum and is waiting for the right trade opportunity to come along, or sit tight until free-agent prices drop. The Cardinals need to fortify their rotation … for reasons that I’ve written about, and talked about, for weeks.

I trust Mozeliak … but I also know that the Cardinals are supposed to have an advantage over the Cubs in the pitching department.

I don’t see it in the rotation.

Not yet.

Maybe the Cardinals should give Darvish a call … or someone a call.

If Mozeliak signs a veteran free-agent pitcher, he’ll have the flexibility to strengthen another roster area by trading a good pitching prospect or two.

Thanks for reading…

–Bernie

More: Trading for Manny Machado is Not Only Risky Business. It’s Bad Business.

  • Geniuses, with or WITHOUT Darvish, the Cubs are better. Try a dose of fkn reality. Incredible stupidity on display here daily.

    • W Mahan

      Well I don’t know if it’s “incredible stupidity” or just “whistling past the graveyard.” But when you look at the comparative pitching matchups, the Cubs are better. WAY BETTER. I wish it wasn’t so…

      • JDinSTL

        Dollar Bill DeWitt is hoping we’ll get lucky.

        • BradW

          Nah. We go Mo, they got Theo. That’s the difference. It’s not Bill’s fault, in my opinion.

          • M W

            Very good point. It seems like the game has changed to a point where Mo is already a dinosaur.

          • It’s not Bill’s fault? Who employs and serves at the pleasure of who? You suggest it’s fate that employs Mozeliak, while I happen to believe it’s misplaced loyalty.

  • JohnS

    This is getting to be embarrassing….the Cardinals either don’t have the money or they have it and don’t have the will to spend it. Looks like this team is gonna be looking up at the Cubbies and other big-spending teams with great front-offices for a long, long time….
    Cards make a move and the Cubs immediately counter it. Yep, they have a better rotation right now than the Cards and with the signing of Yu Darvish….ohh, brother!

  • JeremyR

    Well, it’s really the fruition of his plan for the Cardinals – to try to develop as much good young pitching as possible in the belief that good pitching is the key to winning.

    Personally, I’ve felt that was flawed, because young pitching is inherently hard to develop, between injuries and learning to pitch at a high level. And when they are done learning and are effective, it’s almost always time for them to leave via free agency. Or at least are well paid in arbitration.

    The Cubs took the exact opposite tack – develop good young hitting and buy pitching. So far, it looks like the Cubs strategy is the superior one. But then again, they aren’t held back by greedy out of town ownership. They can sign Darvish and still chase after Harper, while the Cardinals won’t try the former and can’t afford the latter.

    • BradW

      The Cubs had to tank to get where they are. It is still amazing that the Cards are behind them in pitching, however, since that was where they planned to have the competitive advantage. Hopefully, some of the young pitchers on the way can be difference makers. It seems like there’s usually a learning curve with pitchers, though.

      • Big T

        No respect for ANY organization that willfully loses. I would give Cubs edge currently in pitching however they have no major league ready talent. All are two or more years away at best.

        Young arms are the most prized trade chips. I believe Mo will make the right choices on who to keep and who to trade. I just hope we can keep Flaherty and Hudson. Flaherty was not old enough to buy beer before last year. Think about his upside? Phenomenal. Pitching beats hitting every time in my book. Pitching future for the birds is so high. Can’t see a better pitching farm in all of baseball. (Martinez, Reyes, Flaherty, Weaver, Wacha, Hudson,) Great problems to have.

  • Mark Lee Arbogast

    On paper or off the Cubs clearly have a better rotation now! The cardinals haven’t really gone after premier tier 1 players much. Pitchers or fielders. They choose guys like Fowler and Leake. But this year they tried Stanton and got Ozuna but only because they didn’t have to part with any dry powder. I sure hope they don’t stop there or next year they might not break the 80 game mark.

  • LawrenceKScardsfan

    This is why I wanted the Cards to sign CC Sabathia. As a transitional arm, Sabathia (like Lackey two years ago – who I also wanted the Cards to resign as a transitional arm) would buy time for the Cards to plug in their young arms and also provide a nice backup if Wacha or Waino simply fail down the line. But Sabathia resigned with the Yankees. The Cards did not appear interested.

    IMO, we need one more starter. But I want room for Reyes to move into the starting rotation. However, my fear is the Cards are looking at Reyes to be the closer. What a waste!!! Reyes could be a stud starter and you want to put him in the closing role? Don’t get me wrong; I recognize the need for a top-notch closer. But a closer can be acquired that doesn’t have the ability to start. Reyes has the ability to start. Let’s hope the Cards make the right decision and keep him in mind for the rotation in a couple of months.

    • JDinSTL

      President Moe has already made his “big move”. Time for another long winter nap.

  • M W

    There really isn’t a comparison to be made between the and the Cubs as it stands today. The Cubs are noticeably better.

    The Cards made a good move by getting Ozuna. But that’s it. You can’t call the pickup of Mikolas as a good move as NO ONE has any clue how he will pitch here.

    They don’t have a closer and the rotation is extremely fragile and thin. They also need another bat.

    Hopefully MO will pull the trigger on some more deals soon. But it sure seems like he’s gone back to his conservative approach of the past couple of offseasons.

    BTW, does anyone know what Girsch does?

  • Scott Warren

    My goodness, even showing Wainwright as the #2 starter on paper is frightening. If the president of baseball operations feels that this rotation is set with question marks on four out of the five, then he is the only one. The simple fact that Lance Lynn is gone makes the 2017 rotation much better than this. It is shaky at best.

    • Big T

      Do you really think Mo is planning on Waino as a #2? That is just BM trying to stir the pot. By May Reyes will be our #2

  • geoff

    I would offer Lynn front-loaded three years sixty-six or so million. I know it is an overpay but money doesn’t hamper a team like length of contract does. There are not many dependable 200 innings types out there and Lynn went more than 180 coming off of TJ surgery. The Cards need a horse.

    • Christopher Toth

      So would I. This seems like a no brainer. Yes he is 31, but he eats innings and in a game where even the best teams lose 50 to 60 games, you need innings eaters like Lynn. His ability to go deep transcends beyond just his own stats. He keeps bullpens more rested than young starters can.

  • silencedogoodreturns

    starting pitching is clearly the Cards’ biggest weakness, IMO. That’s why I don’t understand the apparent lack of enthusiasm in Archer.

  • Christopher Toth

    Mo’s Achilles Heel – no pun intended on a day when we learned of Zach Britton rupturing his – is he never seems to anticipate losing a major pitcher or field player.

    He goes into a season, “I feel comfortable” but then gets blindsided by key injuries whether it was Yadi, Wainwright, or Rosenthal.

    Mo needs to think more strategically in this area.

    Just me, but if I were the GM, I’d never feel “comfortable”. Change comes at you too fast to risk being complacent.

  • Matt Lane

    Like Bernie, I’m not sold on the Cardinals’ starting pitching but a couple of things this analysis misses: a.) You can’t judge a team’s starting pitching by only looking at its best 5 starters. Generally, there are one or more injuries so you have to look 6-7 deep and b.) The Cardinals have major upside rotation potential in 2018 in some combination of Flaherty, Reyes, Hudson, et al. that the Cubs don’t have. Most likely at least one of those guys will excel in 2018.

  • Taylor

    One correction: the Cubs’ previous regime signed Contreras.

  • Kevin Wright

    Look, this is real simple, the Cards have the cash and the prospects to improve this team dramatically. Decide on the upgrades needed and go get them. No excuses, just go do whatever it takes to make this team relevant again. Time for some bold FO decisions.

  • Big T

    Why would they not have a better staff if they add two free agent signings? One costing hugely more in this scenario of them getting Darvish and the other Chatwood also considerably more than ours.

    Lackey signing was only good for the first year. His second year was not a good one. Cards did the right thing and offered him a 1 year deal. As Bill parcells says, “better to get rid of a player one year early than one year late”. Lackey 2017 most HR allowed, 4+ ERA …In fact Maddon did not even pitch him when it counted and when he did …Justin Turner time. Send the cry baby into retirement with that his last memory.. Go get a hair cut Lackey . You will not get any more jewelry.

    Bernie continual praise for the Cubs is really getting pedestrian in his own journalistic way. No doubt we could use another starter but in your mock five you leave off the influence of a Reyes and Flaherty and Hudson on this staff. Thus to me you lose some objectivity. this article also assumes that Lester at 34 is as good as ever. Father time coming here too. Smyly signing was insurance signing. He was not that impressive when healthy.

    • Tom L

      “Bernie continual praise for the Cubs is really getting pedestrian in his own journalistic way.”
      Why would Bernie praise the Cubs? Perhaps because they’ve been beating the holy daylights out of the Cardinals for the past two years? Where have you been?

      • Big T

        You must not read his articles much if you don’t see his praise for the Cubbies. He is continually praising the cubs on every point he can spin.

        In tonight’s article I merely pointed out the Lackey signings was not as good as he spun it. And the fact that he left out our depth of pitching when evaluating the rotations of each team. Further evidenced by his assertion that Waino is our #2. Do you think Waino is our #2? If so lets play poker some time.

        By the way the Cards cub games had 7 one run games last year not exactly beating the holy day lights out of anything. Where is Reyes name mentioned here? It is not and trust me he is a formidable #1 or 2 waiting to happen.

        • Tom L

          Who won those one-run games?
          The Cubs, who have indeed been beating the daylights out of the Cardinals for the past two years.
          Bernie has no love for the Cubs, just recognizes reality when he sees it.

  • Tom L

    The only thing I disagree with is naming Waino the #2 starter. No way, he’s our #5.

  • 8thgenerationamerican

    I’m shocked the Cardinals have not been in the competition for Darvish as it is glaringly apparent the team has a major problem in terms of reliable starting pitching now that Lynn is gone.

  • Rich Rauch

    Thanks to the link to the Peter Gammons column, I decided to check out The Athletic and figured I’d bookmark their Cardinals page. As of this moment—once their (fragile?) web server eventually responded—there is nothing at all: https://theathletic.com/cardinals/

    Guess that might be another indication of how far we’ve fallen.

    EDIT: There is a St. Louis page, too… https://theathletic.com/stlouis/

  • Rich Rauch

    Ideally, Darvish signs a HUGE contract with the Cubs and brings along his World Series 21.60 ERA for his entire stay with them. I can dream, right?