Darvish trade could be one Cubs' fans look back on fondly
Monday night, the Cubs sent 2020 National League Cy Young runner-up Yu Darvish and catcher Victor Caratini to San Diego in exchange for pitcher Zach Davies and four young prospects.
There have been conflicting reports over whether or not the Padres will pick up the remaining $59 million on Darvish's contract through 2023; I'm sure there will be more clarity soon. If the Padres eat the entire contract, the Cubs will shave off roughly $14 million of their 2021 payroll, and open up approximately $20 million in annual payroll flexibility beyond 2021, just as Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo hit the free agent market.
The aforementioned prospects included in the deal are 18 year-old outfielders Owen Caissie (the Padres' no. 13 prospect on MLB.com) and Ismael Mena (no. 15), 17 year-old shortstop Reginald Preciado (no. 11) and 20 year-old shortstop Yeisson Santana (no. 16).
Immediately following the trade, Cubs' fans expressed their discontentment and frustration with the deal on social media. It appears fans were hoping the team would receive a greater return for Darvish and Caratini than Monday night's prospect haul.
Realistically, there was no chance the Padres would part ways with 21 year-old left-handed pitcher Mackenzie Gore (baseball's no. 3 overall prospect expected to make his Major League debut in 2021) or young, proven big leaguer Chris Paddack, in a trade for Darvish.
It's important to put Darvish's masterful 2020 campaign in perspective. At age 34, Darvish logged his best year as a Cub, posting an 8-3 record and career best 2.01 ERA and 0.96 WHIP. Yet, 2020 was no ordinary year. In a shortened 60-game season, Darvish made just 12 starts and threw 76 innings. In a regular, 162-game season, a starting pitcher with those totals wouldn't be qualified to win the Cy Young. They'd almost certainly make the All-Star team, but how often have we seen guys get off to a hot 60-game start, only to cool off and come back down to reality over the next 102? Heck, Cubs' starter Carlos Silva surprisingly logged a 10-2 record, 2.89 ERA and 1.09 WHIP through his first 12 starts in 2010, only to finish the season with a 4.22 ERA and 1.27 WHIP. Woof.
It's important to take 2020 with a grain of salt. In addition to the shortened schedule, baseball was played in empty stadiums with no fans. Playing in front of empty seats is a rarity that I have to think, will not be fully replicated in 2021. In efforts to limit travel, the regular season schedule consisted only of divisional opponents, and the region's corresponding American League division's teams. The 2020 jointed AL-NL Central interdivision was not a good one. Eight of ten teams placed in the bottom third in all of baseball in runs scored, and a ninth team placed 18th in the category. In other words, just one AL-NL Central team (the White Sox) placed in the top 17 in runs scored. It was the same story for OPS. Eight teams placed in the bottom 11 for the category, the Twins topped in at 15th, and once again, the White Sox were the region's only top ten team in this category.
In other words, Darvish pitched his best season with the Cubs in a small sample size, in front of no fans, against weak competition. It wasn't long ago that fans wanted his head on a platter, unhappy with the expensive free agent signee's production. Bleacher Report ran a piece titled, "Yu Darvish's $126 Million Nightmare May Never End for Cubs" as recently as July 2019. Through his first 19 starts with the club, Darvish logged an undesirable 5.21 ERA and 1.54 WHIP, before turning a corner. Entering his age 35 season and already having had Tommy John surgery, there's no certainty Darvish will repeat his 2020 efforts. Other teams are aware of all the variables I have mentioned, and to my understanding, no team was bidding against the Padres.
Cubs fans should be realistic. The hard truth is that as currently constructed, the Cubs are not winning a World Series. That should be clear. Had the season been longer, and the NL Central not been as pathetic as it was in 2020, the Cubs may not have won the division. The second they reached the playoffs, they got handed two straight losses from the Miami Marlins, of all teams. They haven't won a playoff game since 2017, and have been trending in the wrong direction ever since. Pressed for money and with core players hitting free agency a year from now, it's not going to be a quick fix. New front office frontman Jed Hoyer had the option to stick to the status quo, or shake things up and potentially lay the groundwork for their next era of excellence. In order to get out of mediocrity, he's going to have to cut ties with players that fans don't want to let go of.
Believe it or not, the Cubs are selling high on Darvish, as a Cub. Hoyer's front office has had an ugly history of hanging onto players for too long and getting little to no return for them (see: Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber and Albert Almora Jr.) and a great history of winning trades they've presumably lost on the surface (see: Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks, Anthony Rizzo and once again, Addison Russell). The 2020 AL champion Tampa Bay Rays' blueprint for success means buying low and selling high. I believe the Cubs are following that model to a T in this particular instance.
Davies, age 27, has quietly been one of the better pitchers in the National League over the last two years, posting a 3.30 ERA in 43 starts, a total ERA lower than Darvish's over 2019 and 2020 (3.39). In fact, over the last four seasons (2017-2020) they've pitched about the same amount of innings (Darvish threw 481; Davies threw 486) and have had a near identical ERA over that stretch. Darvish's was 3.70, Davies' was 3.74.
Owed $8.5 million in the final year of his contract, Davies can fit into Darvish's spot in the rotation as a younger, cheaper, more-efficient option, and potentially be dangled at the deadline if the Cubs are sellers come July. If the Cubs like him enough, they may just keep him past 2021.
While none of the prospects the Cubs added in Monday's blockbuster deal currently have a spot on MLB.com's top 100 prospects, the club still may have scooped up a few diamonds in the rough. Due to COVID-19, minor league baseball was shut down in 2020, preventing young prospects from making an impact and creating a name for themselves. The Canadian-born Caissie was selected 45th overall in the 2020 draft. Preciado and Mena were both highly sought-after international commodities last year, signing $1.3 million and $2 million contracts respectively, at the age of 16; Preciado out of Panama and Mena out of the Dominican Republic. Neither has played a minor league game yet. Santana was another international signing from the DR who that batted .346 in rookie ball in 2019.
Hoyer's front office has found success with international signings, most notably snagging budding stars Eloy Jimenez, Jorge Soler and Gleyber Torres. The Padres' recent success can also be attributed to internationally signed players, most notably Fernando Tatis Jr., who they added at the age of 17 in an eerily similar salary dump, this time however, when they unloaded James Shields' $56 million on the White Sox.
After ditching Darvish, Schwarber and Almora, the Cubs look to be far from finished transforming their roster. There will likely be several more agonizing blows delivered to a loyal fan base that has followed its team to its new cable channel, in the coming months. The process will be painful and difficult, but has the potential to pay dividends just as it did the last time Hoyer helped the Cubs rebuild nine years ago, resulting in the club's first World Series in 108 years. If done properly, the wait for the team's next championship won't be nearly as long as the last one.
(Photo via Michael Thomas/Associated Press)