MESA, Ariz. — For the Chicago Cubs, one of those silly-but-great February traditions — the first-day-of-spring-training news conference with the triumvirate of Manager Joe Maddon, General Manager Jed Hoyer and team president Theo Epstein — found itself, by necessity, usurped by one of those silly-but-great traditions that typically come in December or January: the unveiling, complete with the ceremonial donning of cap and uniform, of the team’s shiny, new, high-priced acquisition.
And so, Tuesday afternoon, a roughly 20-foot-by-30-foot room set up as workspace for about 15 media members found itself crammed with nearly 100 people — dozens of journalists from Chicago and Japan, the Cubs’ brass, a couple of agents and the person chiefly responsible for this mash-up of winter and spring rites: right-handed pitcher Yu Darvish.
There is a reason elite free agents generally are not unveiled on the first day of spring training. In almost every previous offseason, players the caliber of Darvish — whose six-year, $125 million deal with the Cubs was made official Tuesday — have typically signed their contracts in December, or January at the latest. They have traveled to the team’s home city, met the media there and become familiar enough to the fan base that their arrival in camp the following spring is little more than a footnote.
But this was no typical offseason, and Darvish’s introductory news conference, which bled over into the welcome-to-spring media session with Maddon, Hoyer and Epstein, contained an uncomfortable underpinning of the sort that is certain to be one of the biggest story lines in the game, leaguewide, this spring — the result of the unprecedented slow-moving nature of this winter’s free agent market and the labor unrest it has engendered.
“I’ve always said if there is no team that meets our requirement,” Darvish told the media through a translator, referring to the contract negotiations over the previous weeks, “I’m ready to retire.”
Darvish said it with a sly smile, and it is safe to assume he was joking. But with dozens of free agents still unemployed on the day camps opened in Arizona and Florida, the slow pace and the accumulating data points of this talent marketplace are no laughing matter. While Darvish, 31, became the first player this winter to get either a six-year or nine-figure contract, he received considerably less in average annual value than most thought he would get back in November.
The Cubs, one of a handful of large-market teams whose insistence on remaining below the $197 million luxury-tax threshold has contributed to the slowdown, all but acknowledged they got a massive bargain with Darvish as his price dropped throughout the winter. They didn’t even meet formally with his agents until mid-December and didn’t engage fully until it was clear he would fit within their defined budget.
“Early in the offseason we didn’t think it was very realistic” to sign Darvish, Epstein said. “ … We had a lot of needs to fill in the pitching staff, and like all teams we have a budget, and we needed to figure out a way to add the talent depth that we needed but also stay on target with our short- and long-term financial planning as well.”
But around the second week of December, Epstein said, “We got to a point, just in assessing the market … that we might end up at least being a contender for Darvish [with] a contract we could fit into our short-term plan and our long-term plan.”
Asked if he thought this winter’s slow-moving market would become the new norm, Hoyer said, “I hope not. None of us have ever experienced an offseason where we signed Darvish on the first day of spring training and that’s not a late signing. For a lot of reasons, it’s a lot better if things happen quicker.”
Other than the date and the setting, the Cubs’ unveiling of their latest acquisition was largely unremarkable. Darvish spoke of how much he admired the organization. The Cubs gushed about his ability and makeup, and they downplayed concerns over his elbow surgery three years ago and his twin meltdowns for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series three months ago.
“He’s a different cat,” Maddon said. “Not many guys that tall, with that delivery and that command — not many people combine all those elements … I mean, this guy’s got so many weapons.”
Elsewhere, across Arizona and Florida, teams were opening camps without players who will eventually become major pieces. The coming weeks undoubtedly will feature additional silly-but-great — and uncomfortable — free agent unveilings.
Darvish’s signing may have felt unnaturally late, and by historical standards it was. But by the standards of fellow big-name free agents such as Jake Arrieta, J.D. Martinez and Eric Hosmer, all of them still unsigned, it was enviously early.