So much for a new world order in the National League Central.
When the Cubs agreed Saturday to a six-year, $126 million deal with right-hander Yu Darvish, it not only filled their final rotation opening with the top-ranked free-agent starter on the market, but it also delivered a powerful counterpunch to big moves made by the Cardinals and Brewers earlier in the offseason.
The signing won’t cost the Cubs a compensatory draft pick because Darvish was traded during the season in 2017, making him ineligible for a qualifying offer.
The deal, pending a physical, puts Darvish in uniform just ahead of the spring reporting date for Cubs pitchers and catchers Tuesday. It also replaces the Cubs’ biggest free-agent loss of the winter, right-hander Jake Arrieta, who remains unsigned but could be the next big domino to fall now that the free-agent dam might have started to break.
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Darvish, 31, is a four-time All-Star who is 1½ seasons removed from Tommy John surgery. He’s 17-17 with a 3.70 ERA and 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings in 48 starts since missing all of the 2015 season.
Assuming continued health, Darvish — who can opt out of the deal after 2019 — might be the most significant player added in the division during a winter in which the Cardinals traded for Marlins outfielder Marcell Ozuna and the Brewers added outfielders Lorenzo Cain (free agent) and Christian Yelich (trade from Marlins).
Darvish joins left-hander Jose Quintana (trade in July) and right-hander Tyler Chatwood (free-agent signing in December) as newcomers to the Cubs’ rotation since the start of last season. The Cubs expect them to be a sizable collective upgrade over Arrieta, right-hander John Lackey and left-hander Brett Anderson.
Including left-hander Jon Lester and right-hander Kyle Hendricks, the Cubs’ 2018 rotation features three All-Stars (nine selections among Lester, Darvish and Quintana), an ERA champ (Hendricks) and three pitchers with a combined five top-four Cy Young finishes. All are under club control through 2019.
Darvish’s deal, the fourth-largest in team history, puts the Cubs firmly back in the driver’s seat in the division, especially after they spent the early part of the offseason deepening their bullpen. Their starting lineup returns intact after scoring the second-most runs in the NL last season.
The Cardinals and Brewers have been trolling the free-agent waters for another starting pitcher, too, and might threaten the Cubs, Nationals and Dodgers in the NL by signing Arrieta. Both have made offers to him.
On a larger scale, the Darvish signing is expected to be the one industry insiders have been waiting for to break a winterlong free-agency freeze that has seen only the relief-pitcher market move at a traditional pace.
Union officials, agents and players have become increasingly vocal in taking shots at Major League Baseball and its teams for engaging in what appears to be lockstep thinking in terms of salary ranges and length-of-contract offers this winter.
Darvish’s contract is the largest by both measures after increasing accusations that industry collusion has suppressed the market.
‘‘There’s nothing to it,’’ Cubs owner Tom Ricketts recently said of the accusations.
As big as Darvish’s contract is, he was projected by many in the fall to get bigger offers, based on comparable players and recent markets.
Cubs president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer are part of a chorus of league executives who point to ‘‘macroeconomic’’ issues affecting the market this year, including relatively low luxury-tax payroll thresholds in the new collective-bargaining agreement and a star-studded top of the class next year.
For now, the larger industry effect of the Darvish signing seems to be the one that might play out on the field this summer.
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