There has been no temptation as short-sided in the Major Leagues over the last 25 years than to overpay starting pitchers on the free agent market.
It has little to do with their talent. Many of the arms that reach free agency are among the league’s best and would make any staff better by their addition.
The problem comes with how much these pitchers demand and how to justify that expense in the new world of baseball, where a six-inning start is considered the standard and five- and six-man rotations limit their appearances.
And there is no guarantee the player will remain healthy.
The three most glaring mistakes in this area of late have been made by the Boston Red Sox, Arizona Diamondbacks and Chicago Cubs with David Price, Zach Greinke and Yu Darvish.
The Sox gave Price $217 million over seven seasons. He will be 36 when his deal ends in 2022. Arizona offered Greinke $206 million over six. He will be 37 when his contract expires in 2021.
The case of Darvish (six years, $126 million) came front and center on Sunday when the Cubs’ supposed core starter, signed to compensate for the loss of Jake Arrieta to the Philadelphia Phillies, lasted one inning and 19 pitches in a Class A rehab start in South Bend, Ind.
The gameplan was for Sunday’s start to be the first of three that would eventually lead Darvish back to the Majors for the September pennant chase.
Out for most of the season with elbow and triceps trouble, Darvish offered a classic warning sign as he left the mound. According to the Associated Press, he shook his right arm after striking out the last batter he faced.
“I felt real good,” Darvish told the AP after the appearance through an interpreter. “I didn’t feel any abnormalities in that sense.”
The problem came when he was able to complete only six pitches while warming up for the second inning. He appeared in pain. And that was that.
“During the warmup, I felt something in there,” Darvish said. “And the last time, even though I did feel the same thing, I kept continuing to throw. So this time, I just stopped it.”
He is now headed for another MRI.
Teams like the Cubs often react irrationally when negotiating with players like Darvish. They are seduced by the concept of “eating up innings” and have shown the willingness to gamble with the financial solvency of their organizations to secure it.
Darvish’s ERA hasn’t been below 3.00 since 2013 with Texas, which was also the last time he threw over 200 innings. He hasn’t won more than 13 games since 2012 and he hasn’t struck out more than 200 since he led the Majors with 277 in 2013.
Remember, he turned 32 last Thursday so she will be 38 before the deal ends.
Let’s talk about return on investment. Darvish hasn’t pitched since May 20. He has made just eight starts with a 1-3 record and 4.95 ERA.
It’s a credit to the Cubs that they have done so well this season. Their 71-52 record is the best in the National League.
Darvish had previously tried to return on June 25. He threw five innings in another Class A start but his velocity wasn’t very good and within three days he was complaining of pain again. You may recall this is what resulted in both Alex Rodriguez and Rick Sutcliffe questioning Darvish’s toughness.
To compensate for the loss of Darvish, the Cubs acquired Cole Hamels at the trading deadline to team with Jon Lester, Jose Quintana and Kyle Hendricks. That may have to be enough. Not only has Darvish been out, but Tyler Chatwood, another failed free agent signing (three years, $38 million), has been miserable (5.22 ERA) and Mike Montgomery is on the disabled list.
“It’s a process,” Cubs president Theo Epstein told The Athletic last week. “We’ll see how [Darvish] feels. It’s been a long road back, so there’s no point in rushing it now. We probably have one chance given where we are on the calendar to get this right, so that’s the priority.”
Give Darvish credit for sharing the pain.
“I feel most disappointed in myself out of everyone on the world, I think,” Darvish said.
And that’s a sentiment every Major League team should think about this winter when putting together their offers for guys like Clayton Kershaw and Gio Gonzalez.