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What’s a reasonable expectation for Yu Darvish’s contract?

This offseason has been slower than one of the Molina brothers trying to leg out an infield single. By this point in prior winters, most of the league’s top free agents would have had new clubs. As a result, there are a handful of theories pondering why top free agents haven’t signed despite the calendar nearing February. Whether it’s something sinister going on among owners, the luxury tax deterrence, more rational general managers, or something else, this winter has been a dreadful slog. At some point, free agents will come off the board, perhaps at a lower price than we’re accustomed to from recent free agent classes as desperation creeps in. It looks like the Yankees are hoping for something like that to occur with Yu Darvish.

According to a John Harper report, the Yankees are interested in signing Darvish at a discount, thinking that a contract ranging from $80 million to $90 million is a possibility. Meanwhile, MLB Trade Rumors projected 6 years and $160 million, Jon Heyman’s industry expert guessed 6 years and $155 million, and Heyman himself estimated 6 years and $144 million. Based on what free agent starting pitchers of have received over the past decade, those forecasts all seem in the ballpark.

Player Age Service Time WARP ERA+ Years Dollars
Yu Darvish

31

6.000

24.6

126

 ? ?
David Price

30

6.164

33.4

126

7

$217M
Max Scherzer

30

6.079

29.4

117

7

$210M
Zack Greinke

32

11.057

52.7

114

6

$206.5M
CC Sabathia

28

8.000

37.6

120

7

$161M
Jon Lester

31

8.075

28.8

121

6

$155M
Zack Greinke

29

8.057

37.4

122

7

$147M
Johnny Cueto

30

8.000

27.5

122

6

$130M
Cliff Lee

32

7.100

30.8

112

5

$120M
Jordan Zimmermann

30

6.154

19.3

118

5

$110M
Jeff Samardzija

31

6.028

13.6

96

5

$90M

Age, service time, and statistics through final season prior to signing free agent contract. Sources: Baseball Reference, Cot’s Contracts, Baseball Prospectus

Before comparing Darvish to any of these past signees, let’s get a refresher on just how good Darvish is. Through 2017, Darvish owns a career 3.42 ERA, 3.29 FIP, and 2.65 DRA. He’s struck out just a hair under 30 percent of batters and has steadily improved his control since coming over from Japan, lowering his walk rate from 10.9 percent in his rookie campaign to 7.6 percent last season. The elephant in the room is his recent World Series performance, which was unquestionably atrocious, but that alone doesn’t erase tens of millions of dollars off of a player’s contract no matter how much one believes it’s predictive of the future (hint: it’s not). Darvish is a bonafide frontline starter and deserves a significant payday.

Based on Harper’s report, the Yankees apparently hope that Darvish could be had for Samardzija money. That’s absurd. Maybe Samardzija’s contract was above his market value at the time, but that’s not Darvish’s fault (nor the Yankees, of course). That doesn’t mean Darvish should settle for such an amount. Whether the Yankees like it or not, the first digit in Darvish’s total salary is going to be a one.

Zimmermann, the next pitcher up, signed two years back for $110 million over five years and was coming off an average season before entering free agency. Zimmermann may have had an age advantage over Darvish, but that’s where his superiority ends. Aside from Darvish having a better career up until free agency, he was also far better in his walk year. In Zimmerman’s final season with Washington, he recorded a 3.66 ERA that wasn’t buoyed by a 4.37 DRA. Darvish, on the other hand, had a high 3.81 ERA but strong 3.08 DRA in 2017. So, despite his most recent season being unspectacular, the Tigers bet $110 million on Zimmermann. Darvish was excellent in his walk season, has had a better career to the same stage, and the Yankees should expect to get him for less than what Zimmermann signed for? Not happening.

Next is Cliff Lee, the one that always got away from the Yankees. Here we start to find a more reasonable comparison. Although Darvish’s lifetime ERA+ of 126 is far better than Lee’s 112 entering free agency, Lee’s career got off to a slow start. Fortunately for Lee’s bank account, he got better as the open market approached: Lee’s DRAs from 2008 to 2010 (his final three seasons before free agency): 2.85, 3.57, and 2.63. What about Darvish’s last three? 2.53 in 2014, 3.11 in 2016, and 3.08 last year (he missed all of 2015 because of Tommy John surgery). So, performance-wise, both pitchers were quite alike. Lee was more durable. Darvish has the age advantage. There’s also some inflation to consider. Where does that leave us with the $120 million that Lee received? It’s not a terrible match, though it’s not time to call it a day just yet.

Could Johnny Cueto’s 6 year, $130 million contract be a match? From 2011 through 2015, the former Reds hurler was excellent, never posting a DRA higher than 3.32. In similar fashion, Darvish has never had a DRA higher than 3.24. One other convenient parallel is that like Darvish, Cueto posted two strong seasons coming off an injury-plagued 2013 before hitting the open market. Even after accounting for the age difference and inflation, this contract seems fair, though there are still a few pitchers who signed for more than Cueto to evaluate.

After Cueto, we start reaching the range that others predicted Darvish to receive this winter. Greinke (his Dodgers deal), Lester, and Sabathia all signed deals right around the predictions from MLB Trade Rumors, Heyman, and Heyman’s source. All three share similarities to Darvish, but Lester sticks out the most. He was the same age as Darvish when he became a free agent, although with more wear on his arm. Lester’s career ERA+ was lower, though within sniffing distance. When it came to the “what have you done for me lately?” question, the southpaw was coming off a strong 2.65 DRA in the season before joining the Cubs. Despite the additional mileage, Lester had avoided any significant arm trouble. Lester signed for $155 million over seven years or the same dollar amount as what Heyman suggested. This seems like the right dollar amount to stop at, as it’s difficult to envision Darvish signing for more.

This offseason has been as unusual as anyone can imagine, so anyone’s guess on Darvish’s upcoming contract is as good as mine. Yet, that doesn’t mean that all bets are off and that talented players like Darvish will sign for half of their value. Under the current conditions, it seems like there’s an expectation that free agents will sign for less than usual as we start to encroach upon report dates to Florida and Arizona. If that’s the case, Darvish will fall short of what Lester signed for after the 2014 season. Yet, to think that his price could plummet to what Harper’s report states is outrageous. Perhaps after baking in the bizarre state of the free agent market and the skittishness related to his World Series struggles, Darvish will get something around what Cueto signed for. Any lower seems like a complete stretch; Darvish is way too good of a pitcher to be signed for sixty to seventy cents on the dollar. If Darvish gets Cueto money, we can probably count the Yankees out given the luxury tax implications. As great as it would be to have him in the Bronx, the guy doesn’t deserve to be shortchanged.

Photo credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

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