Yu Darvish and the free-agent class of 2017-18 are an appetizer for the 2018-19 bonanza

By the end of this season, presuming all goes well and he makes a full complement of starts for the first time in four years, Yu Darvish is going to enter free agency with more professional innings on his arm than any pitcher who went on to get a nine-figure deal in nearly two decades. It’s scary enough that Darvish will be 31 years old and that a scar from Tommy John surgery snakes across his elbow. The workload is just another toot of the sad trombone.

And yet. It’s always and yet with guys like Darvish. Free agency is one giant and yet. Because so rare is the pitcher worthy of a $100 million-plus contract, flaws are ignored, imperfections looked past, exceptions made. Just remember: All 11 times a pitcher signed a nine-figure free-agent deal, he did so with a different team than the one he played for the previous season. Some were rentals who never were going to re-sign and others considered damaged goods by the teams that knew them best. And yet: 11 of 11 is telling.

It doesn’t say Darvish is unequivocally gone, of course, because he is a damn fascinating case as teams look at the 2017-18 free-agent class almost as an appetizer for the pig-on-a-spit feast of 2018-19. They are willing to stretch salary boundaries for the elite of the elite. Less than a year after Max Scherzer hit the $30 million-a-year threshold, Zack Greinke fetched more than $34.4 million per and David Price beat Scherzer’s overall deal by $7 million total. The million-dollar starter – as in the guy teams are willing to pay a million bucks per start – is a real thing. The question is whether Darvish’s reputation or numbers bring him into that conversation.

On reputation alone, the answer is no. Now, it must be said, neither Greinke nor Scherzer has turned in a particularly memorable postseason, and Price, to this point in his career, is among the worst playoff performers ever compared to the regular season. Still, each came with that air of acehood, an intangible that nevertheless helps drive the irrational market that is free agency – and something Darvish doesn’t have, whether because of his issues going deep into games or other perceptions larded with bias.

And it’s fair to say that because Darvish’s numbers do place him in the company of Price and Greinke. Ten pitchers have locked in nine-figure free-agent pitching contracts. Greinke did it twice. When comparing the career totals of those pitchers going into free agency, Darvish figured about where expected: toward the top, on the strength of his strikeouts.

After looking at four categories – strikeouts, walks and home runs per nine, plus ERA+, to give a sense of where the players ranked when adjusted for era – Price went into free agency with the strongest core of numbers, with the 2015 version of Greinke second and then a glut in which Darvish ranked fourth of the dozen, leading in both K/9 and ERA+.

Those innings do cast a gloomy shadow over whatever performance Darvish puts up. He is at 2,003 now between Japan and Texas, should pass Greinke’s total during his second crack at the bank and will trail only Kevin Brown, who became baseball’s first $100 million player in 1998 with 2,178 1/3 innings on his arm.

Now, admittedly this is a comparison without full context. David Price hit free agency with just 1,441 2/3 major league innings. He also threw more than 250 innings in three years at Vanderbilt and another 150 in the minor leagues. Jon Lester cracked the 2,000-inning threshold when combining his big league and minor league innings.

Teams will factor it in, certainly, when trying to understand whether giving …

1. Yu Darvish a seventh year really is the right move. And the answer will be: Of course it is. Because as teams have learned by now, if you want a great free agent pitcher, the years and the dollars are going to be excessive.

It’s impossible to say how big they’ll get for Darvish because so much depends on the next 3½ months. One thing, sources said, is clear: He is very likely to end the season in a Rangers uniform, even if they do fall out of contention by the trade deadline, which, with the American League the postseason sardine can it is, seems unlikely. The Rangers want to re-sign Darvish, and even though it could wind up as a grass-is-always-greener situation if he were to spend August, September and October elsewhere, Texas wants to keep it that it’s the only place he knows.

The Rangers, similarly, know Darvish better than anyone, and their interest in bringing him back long-term isn’t affected by his age, scar or innings. This year, they’ve seen a pretty classic Darvish season: plenty of strikeouts, too many walks and home runs, scant hits and a low ERA. The strikeout rate is also down and the walk and home run rates up, which is not the sort of thing one hopes to carry into his walk year. If everyone were a little more like …

2. J.D. Martinez, well, baseball would be an even richer place than it is already. Martinez happily will settle for being the best hitter in this class, a worthwhile No. 2 behind Darvish and the richest once-upon-a-time-released player ever.

It’s true. Only three years ago, on the eve of the season, the Houston Astros just straight-up cut Martinez. Every rebuilding team makes a bad mistake, and this was the Astros’. Because in the three-plus seasons since, Martinez has hit .301/.361/.551 with 94 home runs and 272 RBIs. Since 2014, here is the list of players hitting at least .300/.360/.550: Mike Trout and J.D. Martinez.

That line is bupkis compared to this year, when Martinez scorched after missing the season’s first month with a foot injury and is hitting .310/.398/.681 with 11 home runs in 113 at-bats. He is, not surprisingly, the hottest trade commodity among teams in need of bats, though the Tigers, like seemingly the entire AL, don’t seem inclined to count themselves out of contention yet.

Trade season may well grind on for the next six weeks now, with teams like the Kansas City Royals holding on to …

3. Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain instead of recognizing their team’s deficiencies and their farm system’s barrenness combine to scream for a proper rebuild. Nah. That’s not the Royals’ style, particularly after a six-game winning streak put them in striking distance of .500.

That’s the standard in the AL these days. Three games under .500! We’re in it to win it! When you’ve got three talents like Hosmer, Moustakas and Cain, the inclination is to believe they’ll be the driving forces in bringing this team back from the dead. As noble an idea as that is, the three of them alone are not enough, and getting a sense of their potential market now would be mighty prudent.

Since a disastrous start that saw him hitting .195/.253/.247 toward the end of April, Hosmer has been a revelation. Since April 26, he is hitting .359, the third-best total in the big leagues, and OPSing .961. Those nine-figure desires are again a possibility, even without the power Moustakas is flashing.

In what could be his Kansas City swan song, Moustakas is on pace to break a legendary record: the most home runs in a season by a Royal were hit by …

a) George Brett
b) Bo Jackson
c) Willie Mays Aikens
d) John Mayberry

That’s a trick question. The answer is Steve Balboni. Steve Balboni! In 1985, Balboni hit 36 home runs as the first baseman for the world champion Royals. He was the quintessential sloppy 1980s ballplayer, with a mustache and a paunch, and nonetheless he hit so many home runs they called him Bye-Bye Balboni.

Well, Moustakas is halfway there already and could soon surpass his career high of 22. His flaws are obvious. He still doesn’t, and never will, walk enough. While he’ll hit free agency at 29, that doesn’t guarantee his glove can stick at third long-term. In a class with a paucity of third basemen, though, Moustakas is a prize.

Cain finds himself in a similar position because of his rare set of skills. He is a true five-tool player and a center fielder with the ability to play all three outfield positions to boot. His trade value, accordingly, may be the highest among the three, even if his numbers aren’t the same. A .285/.361/.467 line is plenty good, and Cain’s eight home runs in June are four times as many as he hit the previous two months.

The Royals may well end up as the fulcrum of trade discussions. It’s not just those three. Jason Vargas is a wanted quantity out of the rotation. Mike Minor is a deeply desirable left-handed relief option. It’s just a matter of finding a match for them, which is the same issue …

4. Yonder Alonso is facing in Oakland. How many actual contenders need a first baseman or DH enough to trade for Alonso, who has at least quintupled his likely haul as a free agent this offseason? The Yankees. Maybe the Rangers? The first-base/DH market is perilously slim, and it’s undoubtedly on the side of the buyers.

You can see, then, why the A’s have expressed interest in an Alonso extension. His .302/.397/.630 slash is right up there with the best first basemen in the game this season. And his emergence, along with that of Logan Morrison, the habitual home run swatter who whacked his 20th and 21st Sunday, is going to make for a very crowded group this offseason, too.

Available first basemen include Alonso, Morrison, Hosmer, the resurgent Mitch Moreland, Lucas Duda and Mark Reynolds, all of whom are OPSing at least .824 this season. Bad timing for Carlos Santana to be in the midst of the worst season of his career, with his free agency surely affected by this glut and the prospect of him signing a one-year make-good deal likelier by the week.

The pool of outfielders isn’t nearly as plentiful, which makes …

5. Jay Bruce far more valuable both this July and this winter. Provided the person holding the Mets’ voodoo doll isn’t saving a pin for Bruce, he may be the only player of substance the Mets can deal as they try to salvage at least some piece of their snakebitten season. Bruce isn’t going to bring back a king’s ransom by any means. Something, however, is better than nothing, and that word – nothing – is the answer for the question: What exactly has gone right for the Mets this year?

Bruce is going to make for an awfully interesting free agent. He’s still only 30. He’s hitting the ball in the air more, and those balls in the air are going for more home runs, and that’s about the only difference in his offensive game this season. Next to others with similar historical offensive profiles – Carlos Gonzalez and Todd Frazier – Bruce has sustained his production in far better fashion.

His place amid not just the resurgent bats at first base but other talented-and-tricky-to-assess achievers – Zack Cozart and Cameron Maybin are two players with enormous ranges of potential free-agent deals – is yet difficult to peg. It’s like trying to answer the question: Why, exactly, is …

6. Marco Estrada suddenly a strikeout pitcher? Estrada is an ever-evolving anomaly. Let’s see his different stages.

2008-09: Middling reliever for Washington Nationals. Nationals designate him for assignment to make room for Tyler Walker, and Milwaukee claims him off waivers.

2010-12: Vacillates between rotation and bullpen for Brewers, who appreciate the versatility but note declining fastball velocity.

2013-14: Average fastball goes under 90 mph. Suddenly hitters can’t square him up. No, I don’t get it, either.

2015-16: Blue Jays trade for him, hitters get even worse. For two straight seasons post .202 batting average against.

2017: Fastball gains two ticks, back to 90 mph. Strikeouts jump to 10.18 per nine innings, 12th best in the big leagues, ahead of Clayton Kershaw, Darvish, Lester and others. Walks dip. And, naturally, Estrada’s average on balls in play jumps 100 points and his ERA is 4.54.

As much as anyone, Estrada epitomizes this pitching free-agent class. There are risks and traps and pitfalls, and, yes, that’s true of any pitching signing on an open market, but this year there are a particularly large number who, like Cozart and Maybin, can make an argument for big money over crooked years but may not get it.

Part of that is what one agent this week called “the death of the middle class in baseball.” Stars get star money. Prospects get no money. And those in between settle for what they’re given. It’s a cruel mirror of our country, and whether it’s Lance Lynn (2.69 ERA = great, 4.75 FIP = nasty regression coming), Jason Vargas (2.10 ERA = great, 86-mph fastball = no desire for long-term investment) or Michael Pineda (52.7 percent groundball rate = great, miserable career home run rate = scary with fears of a juiced ball), there are going to be as many arguments against signing guys as there are for.

And it’s going to stretch well beyond Estrada and Lynn, Vargas and Pineda, Derek Holland and Jeremy Hellickson, Jaime Garcia and Tyler Chatwood, all the way up the ladder to …

7. Jake Arrieta and his sudden mortality. It’s not hard to remember 2015, when Arrieta turned in one of the finer pitching seasons we’ve seen in the last quarter century. Last year, as the Cubs romped to a championship, he was clearly a different pitcher but effective nevertheless. This year, he hasn’t even been average, and as much as Scott Boras wants to spin Arrieta’s recent past, his present doesn’t compare.

First, there’s the velocity issue. Arrieta’s fastball is off nearly 2.5 mph from its peak two years ago. His cutter has dipped 3 mph. Some pitchers adjust to such changes. Arrieta this season is generating far fewer groundballs (43.8 percent, down nearly 10 percentage points from last season and 12.4 from his peak) and worst of all, yielding an exorbitant number of home runs: 1.39 per nine innings, compared to the 0.39 of two years ago.

Comparing Arrieta to two years ago is troublesome in that he set a standard that season few could repeat. The most promising sign for Arrieta is that he’s striking out more hitters than ever, though that could be more a function of the hitting environment than his stuff playing up. It does give hope that his last 20 or so starts don’t so closely resemble his first 14, which, actually, look an awful lot like what …

8. Johnny Cueto has done this season. Their numbers this season are practically identical:

Arrieta:

IP: 77 2/3

ERA: 4.64

K/9: 9.97

BB/9: 2.90

HR/9: 1.39

FIP: 4.09

GB%: 43.8%

Cueto:

IP: 86 2/3

ERA: 4.57

K/9: 8.93

BB/9: 2.60

HR/9: 1.66

FIP: 4.45

GB%: 39.6%

Both are 31 years old (Cueto was born 19 days before Arrieta). Both throw about 70 percent fastballs and cutters. Working in Cueto’s favor is a longer track record, and unless he bombs out between now and the end of the season, it’s what’s likely to push him into free agency.

Cueto can opt out of the final four years of his six-year, $130 million deal with the San Francisco Giants this winter, and while sentiment may say it’s foolish to do so following a mediocre season, teams almost assuredly would give Cueto – even a diminished Cueto – a deal for more than the four years and $84 million he’s due from the Giants.

The opt-out plays a huge part in the calculus of teams around baseball considering trading for Cueto. The thinking goes: If he’s great, of course he opts out. If not … well, are you then stuck with four years of a pitcher theoretically in decline? As much of a possibility as it is, remember: In the winter of 2014, at 33 years old, after bungling negotiations, James Shields got $75 million over four years. Surely Cueto, two years younger, historically better, can beat that by $10 million while getting to survey the landscape of where he wants to go.

Other opt-outs loom large. As tough as it may be to see Masahiro Tanaka forgoing the last three years and $67 million of his deal with the Yankees, particularly with the third-worst ERA among qualified pitchers and a tear in his ulnar collateral ligament, Tanaka would be the youngest free-agent starter this offseason at 29 years old, and a decade ago, the Kansas City Royals gave Gil Meche, coming off a mediocre year himself, a five-year, $55 million deal because of his youth. The odds at this point are that Tanaka opts in, but they’re not nearly as strong in favor of it as one might believe.

Justin Upton, a lost cause last season, is slashing .268/.355/.502 this year and faces a near-identical decision to Cueto’s, with four years and $88.5 million remaining on a deal with a post-2017 opt-out. He runs the risk of getting caught in the power-hitting vortex, particularly with Upton’s defensive reputation iffy at best.

Barring another arm injury, Rockies closer Greg Holland will exercise his opt-out and join former Royals bullpen mate Wade Davis as the top relievers on the market. Neither is likely to get Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen money. Both may very well exceed the four-year, $62 million deal Mark Melancon struck.

As Cueto, Arrieta and others know, walk-year numbers can make the difference between a deal and a mega-deal. Were …

9. Jonathan Lucroy the 2016 version of himself, there might be some chatter of the third nine-figure deal for a catcher, after Joe Mauer and Buster Posey. Instead, just a question: What happened to him?

It’s more than his framing numbers, for which so many executives loved him, cratering. Lucroy’s bat is nowhere to be found, either. His .696 OPS is 21st among catchers with at least 150 plate appearances. Last season, of those with at least 350 plate appearances, Lucroy’s .855 OPS ranked first.

The Rangers gave up a haul for the year and a half of Lucroy’s services: Lewis Brinson (who soon enough will start for Milwaukee in center field), Luis Ortiz (who is 21 years old and was pitching very well at Double-A before a hamstring injury landed him on the DL) and Ryan Cordell (who is crushing at Triple-A Colorado Springs and adds to the plethora of Brewers outfielders – him, Brinson, Ryan Braun, Domingo Santana, Hernan Perez, Keon Broxton, Brett Phillips – that will, at some point, warrant a trade.)

If they falter – currently they’re only a half-game behind Minnesota for the second wild-card spot but in a tangle of nine teams within three games of one another chasing the Twins– Lucroy may go, if only to get something tangible back. Just don’t expect …

10. Yu Darvish to follow him out the door. The Rangers, sources said, have let it be known they are not inclined to deal Darvish, even if they do fall out of contention, because they hope to re-sign him, echoing what Ken Rosenthal reported over the weekend.

This may be wishful thinking on Texas’ part, but the Rangers hope Darvish is different. Unless Shohei Otani does indeed come to the major leagues this offseason and ends up in Texas, the Rangers would be looking at a grim scenario without Darvish. The rest of their pitching staff, and those waiting to ascend through the minors, simply aren’t good enough, Cole Hamels is seemingly on the downside of his career and it isn’t exactly Texas’ style to splurge on free-agent pitching – especially that with which it isn’t familiar.

At least Darvish knows there will be one suitor willing to lavish him the way he wants. The better he pitches over the next 3½ months, the more teams will line up, put that sad trombone back in its case, pull out a magic flute and hope they can charm their ace with the years and dollars waiting to be had.

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