Just when it seemed spring training camps would open next week amid a paralyzed free agent market that had Major League Baseball and its union on the verge of a labor war, the Chicago Cubs reportedly swooped in Saturday and signed right-hander Yu Darvish, arguably the top available starting pitcher, to a six-year, $126 million contract — the type of lengthy, risky deal for an over-30 player that was supposedly obsolete in an era of enlightened front offices.
The move, first reported by The Athletic (and pending a physical exam), immediately solved the Cubs’ biggest need — front-line starting pitching — and gave them an identifiable, reasonable pathway to a third straight National League Central title, assuming they can hold off resurgent rivals Milwaukee and St. Louis.
After a 103-win 2016 season that culminated in a World Series title, the Cubs won 11 fewer games last year and lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL Championship Series but will enter 2018 with a projected rotation of Darvish, Jon Lester, Jose Quintana, Kyle Hendricks and Tyler Chatwood, which will rank among the best in the league.
Darvish, 31, is a four-time all-star who split last season between the Texas Rangers and Dodgers, famously imploding for the latter in a pair of ugly, brief starts during the World Series. He has a career record of 56-42 with a 3.42 ERA, but is also five years removed from his best season, 2013.
Aside from what his arrival means for the Cubs, Darvish’s contract — which reportedly contains an opt-out, a no-trade provision and escalators that could bring the total value to $150 million — also eases, at least for now, the sense of foreboding hanging over Major League Baseball with camps set to open next week.
Several other teams had been in pursuit of Darvish — including the Dodgers, Brewers and Minnesota Twins — and those teams could quickly pivot to the other top starters on the market, including Jake Arrieta (whom Darvish essentially replaces atop the Cubs’ rotation), Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb. The choice to give Darvish a sixth guaranteed year undoubtedly went a long way toward the Cubs’ winning the bidding.
Although the total guaranteed money in Darvish’s deal could be less than what he might have made several years ago — before teams began reaching the conclusion that lengthy, expensive deals for free agents on the wrong side of 30 were a bad bet — it still represents the longest and biggest deal signed by any player this winter, topping the one for five years and $80 million the Brewers gave outfielder Lorenzo Cain. First baseman Eric Hosmer, who has yet to sign, is believed to have received multiple seven-year, nine-figure contract offers this winter.
With so many free agents still unsigned at this unprecedented late date, many of them plan on conducting their own spring training camp in Bradenton, Fla., starting next week.
One big signing, of course, does not prove anything, and the industry will still be watching to see how the rest of this late-forming market unfolds. But with spring training approaching fast, there is at least some hope that the Darvish signing will be the spark this market needed and that labor tensions will ease, if only slightly.