After a third consecutive season that featured an offensive collapse down the stretch, many fans are expecting an offseason of change ahead for the Chicago Cubs. Even President Theo Epstein admitted in his end-of-season press conference that the organization is currently in a “state of transition”, as most of the position players that won the Cubs a World Series in 2016 and appeared in three consecutive NLCS will be reaching free agency after 2021.
While most fans assume Theo’s words mean a shakeup to “the core” (Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Anthony Rizzo, Willson Contreras, and Kyle Schwarber), there is a compelling option that nobody really seems to mention: trading potential Cy Young award-winner Yu Darvish.
Darvish's Market Value is at its Peak
Before I really get into this, let’s get something straight: Yu Darvish has been the ‘Ace’ the Cubs paid for in the last 1.5 seasons. It’s not like I want him shipped off because he hasn’t met expectations. Since the 2019 All-Star break, Darvish’s 2.40 ERA and 5.4 fWAR rank fourth-best in MLB in both categories. Those numbers are nothing short of domination. Darvish went into 2020 with high expectations and he eclipsed those expectations. Quite frankly, Yu deserves the NL Cy Young over Trevor Bauer and Jacob deGrom.
Not only has Darvish been excellent on the bump for the Cubs, but he’s also pleasant off the field, beloved by fans and the media, and a great locker room presence. Right now, there’s really no downfall surrounding Darvish’s value. But that very fact is precisely why it may make sense to trade him, as Yu's value on the trade market has never been higher while he’s been a Chicago Cub.
Theo Constructed Yu's Limited Trade Clause for a Reason
It’s worth noting that Darvish’s full no-trade clause in 2018 and 2019 has transitioned to a limited trade clause featuring a 12-team list in the year after. Jon Heyman's tweet below also confirms this.
While there’s no way of knowing which organizations make up this 12-team list, I find it interesting that Theo Epstein made it a point in the negotiation process with Darvish to turn that full no-trade clause into a limited one right when the core is nearing free agency. That timing is not coincidental.
I imagine Epstein’s thought process was that in the event 1) the Cubs were in a state of transition with the core of position players, and 2) Yu Darvish was dominating and had a high market value, it may make sense to move him in order to expedite a fast-paced rebuild. Does this sound familiar? Because that is exactly what has come to fruition in the 2020 offseason.
The Cubs' Options are Limited
At the moment, neither Bryant, Rizzo, Baez, nor Schwarber have a trade value close to where it was three to four years ago. This is due to regressing performances and/or having only one year of club control left. Organizations just aren’t willing to part ways with top-tier prospects for only one year of service time in return. This is especially true in a depressed financial market where cost control (i.e. prospects) will be prioritized. Willson Contreras is the only member of the Cubs' core who has both improved since that World Series ring and has club control beyond 2021. So, yes, he does have real value on the trade market.
However, Willy’s value still isn’t close to where Darvish’s is. Not only does Darvish have three years left on his contract (an entire ‘World Series window’, I might add), it’s also an incredibly cheap contract given his worth. Frontline starters with Cy Young ceilings are worth a hell of a lot more than Darvish’s current $20 million annual salary.
Other Cy Young-caliber aces like Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg, and Jacob deGrom rake in between $27.5 and $36 million annually. Yu Darvish has been just as good as these guys in the last 1.5 seasons and, as shown above, has a much team-friendlier contract. Put these factors together and you come to one conclusion: Yu Darvish would reap a king’s ransom return on the trade market.
Still not convinced the Cubs should consider trading Yu Darvish? Continue reading. Both Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber’s trade value was near the top of baseball after the 2016 season. The former was viewed as an already elite defensive shortstop with a plus bat, while the latter was considered a once-in-a-decade type of hitter. Now, Russell is playing in Korea and Schwarber has been mentioned as a non-tender consideration this offseason.
I’m not indicating Theo Epstein was wrong to not move these guys after 2016. Hindsight is 20/20. I understand. But at some point, as the head of the organization, Theo needs to have the fortitude to make a tough decision and trade players at their peak market value. He’s been riding with this core of position players through their highest value and now he and the Cubs and are in a tough situation regarding the organization's future.
It's Time for Theo and the Cubs to Move Forward
Now, I’m not insinuating that Theo Epstein would be stupid not to trade Darvish. I'm simply saying he needs to consider it. The Cubs will likely be favorites to win the NL Central in 2021 barring significant free-agent acquisitions from divisional opponents. Organizations typically don’t trade their ace when they’re division title favorites. I get that. But if the Cubs are honest with themselves, is their being the favorite in a division that features a bunch of above-average teams reason enough to keep the status quo? No, it's not. The Cubs should field offers for Darvish and if Theo receives a high enough return, he needs to pull the trigger.
Yes, if the Cubs trade Darvish, they would also trade much of the core, abruptly ending this window of contention. But with the haul they’d receive in return, in addition to nine of the farm system’s ten top prospects already expected to debut in 2022 or earlier, the Cubs would all of a sudden be loaded with young, close to MLB-ready talent. Sure, prospects are never a guarantee to pan out. But that situation seems much more conducive to sustained success rather than continuing to believe this core can win another World Series. We've already seen what has resulted from the Cubs keeping the status quo the last two offseasons. Let's not repeat the past. Let's move forward.