History says that Yu Darvish and Jacob Arrieta will eventually be rewarded for their patience in this slow-moving market. Top pitchers have always been rewarded, and there's no reason that won't be the case this time around.
But which team will give them the long deals they're seeking? More than likely, they'll get it from one of the teams that need them the most, just as the Astros stepped up to acquire Justin Verlander last August and the Cubs went the extra mile to land Jonathan Lester three years ago.
Sometimes, when you're not a default option for free agents, you have to spend more to land them. Wade Davis just set a relief-pitcher record for average annual value when he signed with the Rockies, who battle the stigma created by Coors Field's friendly hitting conditions.
That same dynamic could play out with the the top starters.
The Twins, Brewers, Phillies, Rangers, Mariners, Orioles and even the Cardinals need more help than some of the teams more often linked to Arrieta and Darvish, such as the Cubs and Astros.
Which teams in the pitching market could benefit the most from Darvish or Arrieta?
Here's how they rank in terms of need, using the currently projected rotations:
It's easy to debate this because of two big unknowns in St. Louis' plans, but who doesn't think that taking Arrieta or a Darvish deal away from the Cubs could be a huge factor in the National League Central landscape? Carlos Martinez becomes the best No. 2 starter in the Major Leagues, not a young ace, and Arrieta-Martinez or Darvish-Martinez looks like one of the best 1-2 combinations in the Majors.
St. Louis' rotation of Martinez, Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, Luke Weaver and Miles Mikolas has only Martinez coming off a strong season in the Majors. The Cards expect to get high-end starter Alex Reyes back from Tommy John surgery after he missed 2017, and they hope Mikolas brings an impactful arm, a la Colby Lewis, after three seasons in Japan. Standing pat looks risky, and a free-agent signing makes it easier to deal for a closer.
This is a franchise that historically has appreciated veteran pitching, with the likes of Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Jamie Moyer, Roy Oswalt and the late Roy Halladay figuring into a five-year run of postseason appearances. Their rebuild is picking up steam, but the rotation of Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez, Nick Pivetta and Ben Lively isn't ready to take an October turn. Sooner or later, the Phils are going to have to go back to the future with a major import.
The work of Ervin Santana and Jose Berrios played a huge role in Minnesota earning an AL Wild Card berth last season, but the rotation falls off in a hurry behind them, with none of the other three projected starters (Kyle Gibson, Adalberto Mejia and Aaron Slegers) delivering a full win's worth of Wins Above Replacement in 2017. That's why the pitching-centric Derek Falvey, the Twins' chief baseball officer, is working hard to sign Darvish, and he could turn that commitment to Arrieta if Darvish goes elsewhere.
Imagine a rotation that includes Darvish/Arrieta, Santana, Berrios and Michael Pineda (Tommy John surgery last July) in the postseason, backed by Byron Buxton and his athletic teammates. That's everything a fan could dream about.
General manager Jon Daniels has imported Mike Minor, Doug Fister and Matt Moore for a rotation that is led by Hamels, but signing Arrieta, who went to high school in the Dallas area and lives in Austin, would make a louder statement than the other moves combined. The front office knows it needs a bold stroke, but it hasn't yet figured out how to pull it off. Can you say mystery team?
Unless Felix Hernandez can return to his form of 2012-15, all of GM Jerry Dipoto's perpetual motion could be unrewarded. There's talent in this mix, but another arm alongside James Paxton, Mike Leake and King Felix would be huge. The current mix, including Erasmo Ramirez and Marco Gonzales, threw only 580 Major League innings last year.
It's no wonder the Orioles were seeking two young starters when they were shopping Manny Machado after the Winter Meetings. They're an open question behind Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman. Currently, Gabriel Ynoa, Miguel Castro and Mike Wright project into the rotation. This group threw only 482 1/3 innings. If the O's aren't rebuilding, they need to find a way to add known quantities.
Just how aggressive will owner Mark Attanasio be? While Jimmy Nelson reports he's ahead of schedule in recovering from shoulder surgery, Darvish or Arrieta would be a godsend. A front-end arm working alongside Chase Anderson, Zach Davies and the recently added Jhoulys Chacin (a good hitter and fielder, in addition to being strong enough to produce a 3.89 ERA over 180 1/3 innings for the Padres last year) would get the Cubs' attention, for sure.
If the Cubs, Dodgers, Yankees, Astros or especially the Nationals land Darvish or Arrieta, it will be a case of the strong getting stronger.
What about the Angels? Good question.
Like the Cardinals, it's hard to evaluate the Halos with this method, because they have too many unknowns in the cast headed by two-way Japanese sensation Shohei Ohtani. He's got the talent to be one of the 10 best starters in the Majors next season. It's also hard to know how Garrett Richards and Matthew Shoemaker will pitch after being limited by injuries last season.
Parker Bridwell, JC Ramirez, Richards and Shoemaker combined to work only 373 2/3 innings last season, earning 5.5 WAR. But that bumps to 11.8 projected to 800 innings, and that's better than the Cubs' current mix of Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana, Tyler Chatwood and Mike Montgomery (11.0 WAR over 878 1/3 innings in 2017).
Don't overlook the Angels next season. It'll be impossible to if they add another big arm.