I love watching Yu Darvish pitch. He's tall, lean and athletic, a pitcher sculpted by Michelangelo. The stuff is electric, the delivery -- he works from the stretch even with the bases empty -- is simple and fairly effortless with a leg kick that goes up to the lettering across his jersey, and he simply looks like the coolest kid in the class.
Darvish is a free agent, but after five seasons in the majors -- not including 2015, which he missed due to Tommy John surgery -- it seems fair to admit that he's a No. 2 starter, and that he's not to going reach that 2013 pre-injury peak when he finished second in the Cy Young voting and struck out 277 batters in 209⅔ innings. His strikeouts dipped a bit in 2017 and his disastrous World Series performance when he lasted just 3⅓ innings over two starts and allowed nine runs cemented the idea that he's not an ace, if you like to label those things.
I've always thought Darvish nibbled too much and didn't trust his fastball, leading to too many walks or hitter's counts, but maybe he simply lacks elite fastball command. When he gets to his slider or curveball he racks up the strikeouts, but the fastball and cutter still get him into trouble (batters slugged .450 against his fastball and .511 against his cutter in 2017).
Still, the man is going to get paid. Look at some recent contracts for starting pitchers of a similar caliber:
Stephen Strasburg: Seven years, $175 million, age 28 ($25M AAV)
Johnny Cueto: Six years, $130 million, age 30 ($21.7M AAV)
Jordan Zimmermann: Five years, $110 million, age 30 ($22M AAV)
Jon Lester: Six years, $155 million, age 31 ($25.8M AAV)
Darvish will be entering his age-31 season, owns a career 3.42 ERA in the majors, has that Tommy John surgery on his medical charts and has been pitching high-leverage innings since he was an 18-year-old in Japan. Estimates suggest a six-year contract in the $160 million range.
Let's look at where he might land:
The rotation projections at FanGraphs put the Rangers at 28th in the majors, ahead of only the Orioles and White Sox. The Rangers' current payroll has room to sign Darvish -- and maybe another starter as well -- and they're obviously familiar with his work. The Rangers are one of the seven finalists for Shohei Ohtani, but getting him wouldn't preclude a deal for Darvish.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Everyone seems to rule out a return to Los Angeles, especially after what happened in the World Series, but the Dodgers' rotation is still full of injury risks. Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill, Kenta Maeda, Alex Wood, Brandon McCarthy and Hyun-Jin Ryu have all spent extensive time on the DL in the recent past. Scott Kazmir is still around as well after missing all of 2017.
Walker Buehler is banging on the door for a rotation job, however, and Yadier Alvarez and Mitchell White could be ready in 2019, so they have some young pitching on the way. Kershaw can also opt out of his deal after 2018, so they'll likely have to give him a pay raise to keep him around. Then there's the decision on whether to go after Giancarlo Stanton -- don't rule out that possibility just yet -- or keep some money in the bank to go after Bryce Harper for 2019. It all points to Darvish signing elsewhere, but the Dodgers might want another power right-hander for the rotation.
Chicago Cubs: Jake Arrieta is a free agent. John Lackey is a free agent. The No. 4 starter right now is ... Eddie Butler? The Cubs obviously desire and need another starter to line up behind Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana.
Would you rather have Darvish or Arrieta, who is a year older, but with less wear and tear on his arm and no Tommy John history? The concern about Arrieta is he has gone from 33 starts and 229 innings in his 2015 peak to 30 starts and 168 innings in 2017. Some of that lessened workload was by design, but pitching an inning less per start than in 2016 didn't improve his effectiveness. Still, Arrieta might make a rational alternative: Not quite as good, but maybe $60 million cheaper.
St. Louis Cardinals: The attention given to acquiring Stanton at least proves one thing: The Cardinals are willing to take on a big contract. Everyone points to them looking for a big bat, but while they were seventh in the NL in runs scored they were also sixth in runs allowed. An upgrade is an upgrade.
Right now, the rotation would be Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha, Adam Wainwright (coming off a 5.11 ERA), Luke Weaver and Jack Flaherty, with Alex Reyes on the mend from Tommy John surgery. Remember, they traded Mike Leake late last season to the Mariners and Lance Lynn is a free agent.
Minnesota Twins: The Twins have given out one $100 million contract in franchise history, the eight-year, $184 million extension Joe Mauer signed back in 2010 (and is finally entering its final year). The second-biggest contract was for Justin Morneau, another homegrown player, but the biggest free agent deals have been $58 million for Phil Hughes and $55 million for Ervin Santana.
This hasn’t been a team to spend big dollars in free agency, but that could change after their surprise wild-card berth in 2017. The only players signed beyond 2018 are Hughes and Jason Castro (Santana has an option), so there is enormous payroll flexibility here to make a big splash and build a better rotation around the young lineup. GM Thad Levine was also the assistant GM in Texas, so has a relationship with Darvish that could be a positive.
Milwaukee Brewers: Like the Twins, the Brewers haven't played in the free-agent market, but like the Twins they’re in a good financial position to make a serious pitch. Ryan Braun is still under lock and key through at least 2020, but other than minimal commitments to Eric Thames and Chase Anderson, nobody else is signed long-term.
With such a young roster, there is clearly room to make a big addition. Keep in mind that Jimmy Nelson is expected to miss a large portion of the 2018 season after injuring his shoulder diving back into first base last September. The Brewers have the talent to at least make a wild-card push, but need a rotation anchor with Nelson out.
Philadelphia Phillies: At some point, the large-market Phillies will dip into free agency since they’ve pared their roster of veterans (Freddy Galvis is the only player with even four years of service time and Odubel Herrera the only player signed to a long-term contract). They can wait until next year’s blockbuster group of free agents when they’ll also hopefully be a year closer to actually contending for the playoffs. Throw in the lack of history the Phillies have with Japanese pitchers and they’re probably a longshot, even with money to spend.