If the Cubs are willing to venture into the deep waters of free-agent starters and engage in serious talks with Yu Darvish, what about the free agent they already know best and who has provided some of the biggest moments in franchise history?
Jake Arrieta, anyone?
Until they got a better look at the price tags on the pitching they need this winter, the Cubs had looked at second-tier starters, a deep market of free-agent relievers and trade possibilities.
Asked in October about signing a big-ticket free agent, team president Theo Epstein said, “It’s not our preferred method.
“We prefer to make a small deal and find Jake Arrieta. But you can’t do that every year, either.”
Or any year?
The Cubs’ 2013 trade of flip-guy starter Scott Feldman and catching prospect Steve Clevenger for Arrieta and Pedro Strop was a franchise-turning trade that might be the best of Epstein’s career.
Arrieta finally fulfilled his enormous potential with the Cubs, who got the greatest 20-start finish to a season in major-league history during a 2015 Cy Young season, for a salary of $3.63 million.
“We’d like to do that again if we could,” Epstein said in October.
To re-sign Arrieta for market value on a long-term deal starting with his age-32 season would make it impossible to recapture the lopsided value of that original trade.
But if they’re going to pay bigger-ticket prices to fill a potential frontline vacancy in the rotation, is Arrieta a worse risk than Darvish?
The Cubs seem to believe so, if their level of seriousness about Darvish is any indication.
With one starting need filled with Tyler Chatwood (three years, $38 million) and second-tier free agent Alex Cobb pricing himself beyond the Cubs’ evaluation of him, the surer bet of Darvish over upside-bet Cobb suddenly got more plausible, especially with sources suggesting Cobb was seeking close to $20 million a year.
The Darvish market seems to be especially active, with the Twins and Astros notably engaged in talks. And the Cubs don’t appear to have the appetite to get into a steep bidding war.
But they don’t seem willing to even wade into the deep end for Arrieta, either.
Certainly, Arrieta has trended down each of the last two years, both in performance and innings pitched, though 2016 was predictable if only because of the historic level of performance in 2015. And the innings totals were in part a matter of workload management the last two years. He also turned his curveball into a weapon in 2017 when his velocity dipped.
Darvish, who missed a season after Tommy John surgery, has been an All-Star in all four seasons he has been healthy since signing a six-year deal with the Rangers.
A healthy, hard-throwing Darvish moving from a successful American League career to the non-DH National League seems an obvious attractive quality.
But the comparison is at least intriguing, and the better risk might be not as obvious to determine.
Both are basically the same age (Darvish is five months younger).
Darvish has the consistent performance level when healthy, including a better strikeout rate and better career ERA.
But counting the minor leagues and Japanese leagues, Arrieta (1,669) has fewer career innings (2,127⅔).
His work and nutrition regimens are the stuff of clubhouse legend. He’s a known quantity as a competitor and a clubhouse presence, well-liked and accessible to young pitchers in the organization.
And he has a rare postseason pedigree: 3.08 ERA in nine postseason starts, all with the Cubs, including a 3-0 record and 1.27 ERA in three elimination games. That includes Game 6 of the 2016 World Series and the Cubs’ only victory against the Dodgers in the 2017 NL Championship Series.
Darvish has a 5.81 ERA in six postseason starts, notably skewed by two ugly World Series starts this year — after which the Astros said they caught him tipping pitches.
Is Darvish the better big-money bet?
That might be the case. But it’s at least not an open-and-shut case.
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ARRIETA vs. DARVISH: Tale of the Tape
- AGE 31 (3/6/86) 31 (8/16/86)
- IP* 1,669 2,127 2/3
- GS* 191 302
- MLB ERA 3.57 3.42
- MLB K/9IP 8.3 11.0
- MLB BB/9IP 3.1 3.3
- MLB WHIP 1.169 1.179
- PostSeason 5-3, 3.08 (9 GS) 2-4, 5.81 (6 GS)
- All-Star 1 4
- Cy Young 1 0
*-Includes minor leagues and Japanese leagues.
Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub