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.