Whoa! Cubs have a surprise trade chip

December 10th, 2020

There’s been a lot of trade chatter swirling around Cubs third baseman , who is heading into his final year before free agency, as well as shortstop and first baseman .

But if Chicago truly wants to shake up its roster and improve its chances of building a consistent World Series title contender in the years to come, it needs to put another star on the trade block: right-hander , who is signed for another three years and owed $59 million.

It wouldn’t be an easy decision for president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer. Darvish finished second in the National League Cy Young Award race after posting a 2.01 ERA with a 0.96 WHIP and 93 K’s in 76 innings this past season.

But here’s why the Cubs should consider it.

Darvish is their best chance of getting foundational pieces

After ending a 108-year World Series title drought in 2016, the Cubs were seemingly set up to be a perennial powerhouse with a core of Bryant, Báez, Rizzo, and . It hasn’t worked out that way, however.

The Cubs lost to the Dodgers in the 2017 NL Championship Series, fell to the Rockies in the '18 NL Wild Card Game and missed the postseason entirely in ’19, leading to the end of Joe Maddon’s tenure as manager. Under new manager David Ross, Chicago won the NL Central in 2020, but it was swept by an upstart Marlins club in the NL Wild Card Series, and Theo Epstein moved on from his post as president of baseball operations after the season.

The Cubs could flip Bryant for one or two players, address their holes with some low-cost, short-term signings and try to run it back with a similar roster led by Báez, Rizzo, Contreras, Darvish, and . But that wouldn’t address the problems that will be facing this team after 2021.

Even if the Cubs re-sign one or more of their free agents next offseason, they’d still have a lot of work to do to construct a team capable of knocking off such top NL contenders as the Dodgers, Braves or Padres, and their farm system is short on future stars. MLB Pipeline ranked the Cubs’ system 26th in September.

Trading Bryant, Báez or Rizzo isn’t going to solve that issue, because teams are averse to surrendering elite prospects for one-year rentals in most situations. That’s especially true in this case, with Bryant (.644 OPS), Báez (.599 OPS) and Rizzo (.755 OPS) all coming off subpar showings in the pandemic-shortened season.

Contreras would have more trade value than the other three, but the return for the 28-year-old catcher might be limited as well, considering he can become a free agent after 2022.

Darvish, though, could fetch the foundational pieces the Cubs desperately need, given the demand for elite starting pitchers around the Majors.

He’d be especially valuable in this marketplace

Darvish has three years left on his deal, so the Cubs have the option of waiting to shop him. But if they want to maximize the return, this is the time to do it.

Among free-agent starting pitchers, there’s a notable drop-off after , and he could potentially land a five-year deal worth upwards of $30 million a year, or a shorter contract with a higher average annual value. Darvish, meanwhile, is guaranteed $59 million through 2023, an average of $19.7 million per year.

Based on the free-agent deals signed by (one year, $8 million), (two years, $18 million), (one year, $11 million) and (one year, $15 million), such free-agent starters as , and are likely to land contracts in the $10 million to $14 million AAV range.

Given the lack of free-agent choices, clubs in need of an ace could turn to the trade market, but the trade options are already dwindling. The Rangers dealt to the White Sox on Monday, landing 25-year-old right-hander (the White Sox No. 5 prospect) and 23-year-old left-hander Avery Weems. Lynn, 33, is owed $8 million in 2021, the final year on his contract.

Other trade candidates include Reds righty (owed $20 million over 2021-22) and Rays lefty (owed $39 million over 2021-23).

Next year’s free-agent class will be much more loaded on the starting-pitcher front, with Lynn, , , , , , , and all eligible for free agency.

His age and health history

Another reason the Cubs should be trying to trade Darvish this offseason? He’s 34 years old and has battled right arm injuries.

Darvish underwent Tommy John surgery in 2014, missed all of ’15 and made only 17 starts in ’16. He spent most of the 2018 season on the sidelines with a strained right triceps and a stress reaction in his right elbow, on which he had an arthroscopic debridement procedure.

Furthermore, Darvish’s performance has been uneven in recent years. Prior to his dominant 2020 campaign, he posted a 4.02 ERA with a 4.08 FIP across 2017-19.

Darvish’s diverse repertoire gives him a good chance to remain effective into his late 30s, but the Cubs would still be taking a sizable risk if they were to wait on a trade. It's a risk they arguably can’t afford to take given their precarious roster situation.

Increased payroll flexibility

Trading Darvish would not only give Chicago a much needed infusion of young talent, it would clear $59 million from the books -- including $22 million in 2021.

So while losing the right-hander would be a big blow, the Cubs would at least gain additional resources to address some of their holes, work on extensions with their upcoming free agents or even find a capable replacement.

It's certainly not ideal, but the Cubs need to consider all options to work their way out of an increasingly difficult spot.