Dream big, Twins fans. Key members of the team’s baseball leadership have stated their interest in the best free agent available this winter, starting pitcher Yu Darvish.
Last winter Derek Falvey and Thad Levine took very few risks in their first offseason in charge of the Twins. With a promising young core of position players and the flexibility to spend some money – with a need to improve the pitching staff to get to the next level of competitiveness – this could be the winter that the front office duo gets aggressive and spends big money in free agency to upgrade the roster.
Darvish is in line to get a huge contract. Several recent reports have said that the line drawn between the Twins and Darvish on websites that aggregate rumors is more than just big talk from the front office.
I wrote last month that just because the Twins haven’t spent big on free agency in the past doesn’t mean that we should sit on the outside and eliminate it as a possibility.
Keep in mind, there absolutely are reasons to be scared off by a Darvish contract this winter. For every point I make in this column, you could take the counter-argument and you’d have some valid points. I’ll address those important counterpoints – the cons of signing Yu Darvish – in a future column. Today, though, it’s all about optimism. This column presents the reasons it would make sense for the Twins to take the plunge and for the first time in team history sign the best free agent pitcher available to a gargantuan contract. These are the pros if you’re making a pro and con list.
For all the negative things that will be said about him this winter as teams try to carefully assess the risk in signing Darvish, it should be said out loud that he’s an ace. Since 2012, only one pitcher has throwns 800 innings with a better strikeout rate than Darvish’s 29.7%, and his name is Max Scherzer. The next few names on that list are Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, Stephen Strasburg, Corey Kluber, Chris Archer and Madison Bumgarner. (There’s more to pitching than striking out hitters — and Darvish’s walk rate is worse than each of those pitchers in that time – but the point is just that this is some pretty elite company.)
Darvish is also a top-20 MLB pitcher in that time in ERA (3.42) and Fielding-Independent Pitching metrics. He’s an ace with swing-and-miss stuff. That type of pitcher doesn’t become available to a team like the Twins every day. And in the past 20 years of developing players in their farm system, the only comparable starter that I can think of is pre-surgery Francisco Liriano.
So if you want an ace, some teams need to either trade for that guy or sign him in free agency. Darvish would give the Twins a rare chance to add that caliber of pitcher.
Line up the talent from top to bottom on the rosters of the Indians and Twins, and I think that Cleveland has the clear advantage for 2018. If the Twins sign Yu Darvish I would have to pause. That assessment gets a lot closer. I’m not sure that it would make the Twins the favorite in the A.L. Central. It would inarguably put them in a better spot for the season, though, in a year in which the A.L. Wild Card should be hotly contested.
I personally don’t think the Twins can sit back and hope that the second wild card spot is available to them again this year. I don’t think that it will be. Not with the Yankees and Red Sox and Astros and Angels and Indians all taking a good shot at this thing. If the goal for the Twins front office is to put the best foot forward for 2018 and make the playoffs or hang around in World Series conversations, then the only reliable path is through winning the Central. The Indians lost Carlos Santana and a couple nice relievers, but should still be formidable in 2018.
Knocking them from the top spot in the division is no easy task, of course. It’s easier with Yu Darvish heading a rotation that also includes J.O. Berrios and Ervin Santana as “mid-rotation” arms.
Some of the biggest names on the free agent market have a double cost tied to their signing. You’re going to have to pay the contract, and in a few select cases you’re also going to forfeit a draft pick. These nine players were offered and rejected the one-year qualifying offer: Jake Arrieta, Lance Lynn, Alex Cobb, Wade Davis, Greg Holland, Carlos Santana, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain. (Santana already signed with the Phillies and the compensation in draft picks has been sorted out.)
Since Darvish was traded during the season, he wasn’t eligible to get a qualifying offer – so the Dodgers and Rangers won’t be rewarded for him hitting free agency. And signing him wouldn’t cost his next employer a high draft pick. That’s part of the math of how much he’s “worth” to a team, whether or not it actually impacts the final dollar total in his agreement.
Yu Darvish was horrible in the World Series, and I could make the argument that he’s the primary reasons the Dodgers didn’t beat the Astros. They hoped they were trading for an second ace to add to Clayton Kershaw for a World Series run. Instead they got a trainwreck in two short starts.
He got just 10 outs spread across those two outings. He gave up 9 runs (8 earned) with two home runs, two walks and no strikeouts. The Dodgers lost both games he started and needed to get significant work from other pitchers during that Game 3 and Game 7.
I think that nightmare of a week for Darvish and the Dodgers is a good thing for a team like the Twins. Call me crazy. For one thing, it could possibly eliminate some of the teams that otherwise might be top bidders for a 31-year-old ace in free agency. If you think he’s not a big-game pitcher, well, it’s hard to talk yourself into committing a nine-figure salary for a nice regular-season arm. Economics 101 says that the less demand that there is for a given supply, the lower the cost of goods becomes – at least in theory. The Cubs and Astros reportedly have plenty of interest in Darvish, so not all big-spending World Series contenders are shying away. Each team’s situation is unique.
Maybe those 2 starts hurt Darvish’s earning power this winter. That’s good for the mid-market and pitching-needy Twins. We can also look at the purported reasons he was shelled and maybe take something encouraging from it. 1) Sports Illustrated reported that the two teams were using slicker baseballs during the World Series, which may have hurt slider-heavy pitchers like Darvish; and 2) There have been reports that Darvish was tipping his pitches, which could in part explain why a guy with strikeout stuff got rocked on the world’s biggest stage.
Wherever he works next, Darvish will take those lessons learned from his highly visible failure. Torii Hunter once explained to me that “wisdom is just healed pain.” With the right attitude, failure is a learning experience. Consider the 2017 World Series the latest course in Darvish’s education.
From my own non-scientific polling of Twins fans online I’ve calculated that about 83% of all complaints leveled against the team are based on the club failing to spend with the big boys. They’re cheap, in other words. (The other 17% of attacks on the Twins are because they once agreed to pay Joe Mauer too much money, which to me says something about the critics.)
Without diving too deep into the payroll debate, here’s a simple truth. Signing the top available free agent to help solve the most glaring weakness – and spending $150 million or more in the process – would end the narrative that the Pohlad family is an overly frugal ownership group that doesn’t care enough about the on-field product.
And as a fringe benefit, the Twins would almost certainly sell more tickets in 2018. As an extension of boosting the competitiveness of the club and the perception that you’ll do whatever it takes to win, more fans will come to games. Winning helps that, and I think star players help that, too. If you sign Darvish you’re also opening up a new traffic lane, because he’s is one of the most prominent Japanese stars in the game. That’s a country and probably a subset of fans that hasn’t had a reason to follow the Twins since Tsuyoshi Nishioka parted ways with the team a few years ago. I’ll never argue that selling tickets should be a driving factor in baseball decisions. In some cases it should be intentionally ignored as a factor. If you’re looking for bonus points, though, for why committing huge money to a bona fide star in free agency, then marketing the main product – the ball club – gets mentioned in the board meetings.