Yu Darvish looked very good in striking out 12 Rays over eight innings on Friday night for the Rangers, and you'd be forgiven for wondering if that's the last time you'll see him in the Texas red and blue. After all, the American League West has been more or less wrapped up for months, the pace set by the scorching Astros, and the Rangers are two games below .500, although a St. Petersburg weekend sweep had them just 2 1/2 games back of an AL Wild Card spot entering Monday. With Darvish headed toward free agency, it's no surprise we're hearing rumors of his availability on the market.
If so, Darvish is going to represent a pretty unique asset, because he's having a better season than Justin Verlander, he's more reliable than Sonny Gray and he's more dominant than Lance Lynn or Marco Estrada. More than any other starter remaining, he's the one a team can envision starting a postseason game and making a difference doing so, and that matters.
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Of course, as we saw with the limited return Detroit got from Arizona for J.D. Martinez, teams are increasingly wary of giving up top prospects for rentals. That's maybe not great news for Rangers fans, but it may keep the price low enough for more contenders to jump in. Which fits are the best? Let's check it out.
The Darvish details you ought to know: He'll turn 31 next month, he's making $11 million and he missed all of 2015 with Tommy John surgery, though he's proven his health since. In 38 starts since returning last year, he's got a 3.43 ERA, though his strikeout drop from 32 percent last year to 26 this year is slightly worrisome. Still, advanced Statcast™ metrics have him out-pitching Jacob Arrieta and David Price.
Let's stipulate this, though: Sure, the teams that have put themselves in a position to play October baseball would like to have Darvish for a few postseason starts. But they won't value him as highly as teams that still need some help getting there in the first place, and those clubs are likely to be far more motivated.
There's probably no better fit for Darvish than the Yankees, who made a big push for the postseason by adding Tommy Kahnle, Todd Frazier and Player Page for David Robertson, yet still have serious rotation issues. With Michael Pineda injured, the Yankees have the impressive Luis Severino and a whole lot of questions, with various levels of concern about Masahiro Tanaka, Carsten Sabathia and Jordan Montgomery. Currently in possession of the first AL Wild Card spot, the Yankees badly need a starter, not just for October, but to ensure they get there.
It's not quite as desperate for the Indians, since they have Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco, and Mike Clevinger has impressed. But Trevor Bauer, Danny Salazar and Josh Tomlin have been various shades of unreliable, and after being short a starter last October, you can imagine they won't want to do the same again. Having Darvish as your Game 3 starter would be impressive, and of course they still need to hold off the Royals and Twins to get there. (Yes, Darvish reportedly has a no-trade clause with Cleveland on it, but such terms are easily negotiated.)
Believe it: The Brewers are serious contenders. While they'd likely prefer someone who can stick around for the next few seasons, like Gray, they're still narrowly hanging onto the National League Central lead, and adding a starter like Darvish to a staff that includes Jimmy Nelson and Chase Anderson would be huge. No, they won't overpay for a rental, but they have the prospects to deal if they want to, and as we noted above, rentals just don't cost that much these days. This wasn't the plan, but sometimes plans change.
Extreme spoiler alert, Part 1: The Dodgers are going to win the NL West. They're going to be favored in every postseason series, even if they do nothing at all. So if you're acquiring Darvish, as has been rumored, you're doing so for him to be the third starter in October behind Clayton Kershaw and Alex Wood -- or fourth, depending on how you feel about Rich Hill. There's nothing wrong with that, of course; it would make a great team better. It just may limit how heavily the Dodgers would pay. That remains true even with Sunday's news that Kershaw is going on the disabled list, since even that isn't likely to affect the NL West race much.
Extreme spoiler alert, Part 2: The Astros are going to win the AL West, and should Darvish end up in Houston, you can repeat pretty much everything we just said about the Dodgers, with the added twist of an intra-divisional, intra-state trade. You can certainly imagine the appeal of Dallas Keuchel, Darvish, and Lance McCullers fronting a postseason rotation, though deals between these two clubs happen so rarely. Like with the Dodgers, Darvish in Houston would be nice to have, not a must-have.
Despite adding Jose Quintana, the Cubs are still reportedly in on Darvish, though deals for Quintana and Albertin Chapman in the last year have seriously weakened the farm system. A rotation with Jonathan Lester, Arrieta, Darvish and Quintana would be more than a little formidable, and the Cubs' pursuit of the NL Central crown has only picked up. Well within striking distance of the Brewers, the Cubs with Darvish would make it that much harder on Milwaukee to clinch the division crown.