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And so it will go for the next five years.
It was easy to be optimistic when Darvish and the Cubs joined forces in February. They sorely needed a top-of-the-rotation starter, and he was arguably the best starter on the free-agent market. Moreover, his six-year, $126 million contract was less than he was projected for.
Then he debuted with a five-run dud March 31. Then he was sitting on a 4.95 ERA on May 20 through eight starts. Then he was sidelined for months with arm trouble.
Now, following a long and (according to the man himself) arduous attempt at a comeback, the 32-year-old’s season is over. He’s been officially shut down with a triceps strain and a stress reaction in his right elbow.
There is some good news regarding the four-time All-Star, who arrived on the North Side with a 3.42 career ERA and the highest strikeout rate in history. Although he had Tommy John surgery in 2015, that has no bearing on his current status.
“I should note there was some good news with the testing,” Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein told reporters. “His ligament that was reconstructed looked really good and in place and stable.”
For their part, the Cubs could be in a worse spot. Although they haven’t gotten what they expected out of Darvish, they still have the best record in the National League.
That’s about the extent of the good news, however.
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Despite his early misadventures, the Cubs were still anticipating having Darvish back in their rotation for the stretch run. With that nixed, they must move forward with a group that’s struggled with a 4.75 ERA since the All-Star break.
There’s a chance this costs the Cubs their lead in the NL Central. There’s an even better chance that it costs them in the postseason, where they’ll be chasing their second World Series title in three years.
And while Darvish might return happy, healthy and ready to go in 2019, the more realistic outlook is that he’s only begun to be a drain on the Cubs.
He is, after all, a 32-year-old power pitcher with 2,173 professional innings on his arm, as well as two season-wrecking injuries on his record. In all likelihood, the twilight of his stardom is here for good.
The Cubs must have figured that Darvish’s breakdown would come eventually, but they surely hoped it wouldn’t be until after they’d gotten their money’s worth. That’s presumably why they agreed to the specific structure of his contract.
It’s not actually a four-year, $126 million deal. Because of the opt-out clause after 2019, it’s really a two-year, $45 million deal with a four-year, $81 million player option.
Had Darvish lived up to his billing in his first two years with the Cubs, he likely would have taken advantage of his opt-out and reentered the open market. That may have been just fine by the Cubs, as it could have been their ticket out of paying big sums to an aging hurler.
It’s now all but certain that he won’t do that.
Even if Darvish bounces back in 2019, he’ll be a 33-year-old with a checkered past. The free-agent market only mustered $75 million for James Shields in 2015, when he was 33 and had a long history of durability and productivity. There’s no way the same market will value Darvish at more than that. The smart thing for him will be to opt into the final four seasons of his current deal.
As it is, the Cubs are already ticketed for a difficult financial situation this winter.
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Given how much his own stardom has waned, it’s doubtful that Jason Heyward will exercise his opt-out and spare the Cubs from the five years and $106 million remaining on his contract.
While Cole Hamels will probably be gone by way of a $6 million buyout, Jose Quintana ($10.5 million team option), Pedro Strop ($6.25 million team option) and Brandon Kintzler ($5 million player option) are likely sticking around. That would bring the Cubs to $152.5 million in guaranteed money for just 13 players.
Elsewhere, Kris Bryant, Kyle Hendricks and Addison Russell will be heading for second rounds of arbitration. Javier Baez and Kyle Schwarber will be up for the first time. If anything, Baseball Reference’s projection of $31.4 million in arbitration payouts may be conservative.
As such, the 2019 Cubs are already projected to beat the franchise-record $182.4 million payroll with which they opened 2018. Barring some drastic cost-cutting measures, that plus fear of the luxury tax might preclude or restrict pursuits of big-ticket free agents such as Bryce Harper or Manny Machado.
Different things might have been in store for the Cubs after 2019 if Darvish were to exercise his opt-out. But assuming he doesn’t, things aren’t slated to be that different ahead of 2020. Some money (including Ben Zobrist’s four-year, $56 million deal) will be coming off their books, but those savings could be more than wiped out by additional arbitration costs for Bryant, Hendricks, Russell, Baez and Schwarber.
In the meantime, the Cubs are sitting on a farm system that checked in at No. 29 on Bleacher Report’s most recent rankings. This won’t necessarily bar them from blockbuster trades, but it won’t make them any easier.
By winning the 2016 World Series despite getting next to nothing out of Heyward, it is some comfort that the current Cubs regime has proved that it knows how to survive a contract flop.
But that looks like child’s play relative to the test that lies ahead. They’ll be tasked with withstanding two contract flops this time around, and without the advantage of ultra-cheap talent at their core.
The Cubs aren’t in this position because of a unique brand of incompetence. Sure, maybe they could have re-signed Jake Arrieta for less and avoided all this trouble. But Darvish did seem to have fewer red flags at the time, and no win-now team with deep pockets should ever be faulted for betting big.
Rather, this is a case of what usually happens to win-now teams that bet big: Inevitably, their costs soar and cracks begin to form.
Since the Cubs can’t travel back in time and do things differently, all they can do now is try to soldier through it.