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Even more thoughts about the Yu Darvish trade

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Try to calm down a bit and let’s talk some more about what this all means.

Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

The Cubs and Padres officially announced the seven-player deal featuring Yu Darvish by press releases late Tuesday.

As you surely know, Darvish and Victor Caratini are heading to San Diego. In exchange, the Cubs receive righthander Zach Davies and four prospects: infielders Reginald Preciado and Yeison Santana and outfielders Owen Caissie and Ismael Mena.

None of the prospects is likely to hit the big leagues until at least 2023, making this trade largely a salary dump.

Here’s a bit more information on that:

A couple things about those numbers. First, $59 million is incorrect. Darvish received a $1 million escalator to each of his last three years’ salaries for his second-place finish in Cy Young Award voting this year. The correct figures for Darvish’s remaining contract years are $23 million for 2021, $20 million for 2022 and $19 million for 2023, a total of $62 million.

So is this a $5 million payment by the Cubs to the Padres, or $8 million? Again, it’s not clear. If Kevin Acee is correct about the amount the Padres are paying, it’s probably closer to $8 million.

Also unclear is whether the Cubs’ payment, whatever it is, will be made all in 2021, or whether it will be spread out over the remaining life of the contract. That’d be important to determine the Cubs’ luxury tax exposure for 2021-23, as any such payments accrue against that figure.

Thus the Cubs’ total savings (for 2021 only) from moves made so far appear to be:

  • $23 million not paid to Darvish (less whatever they kick in to the Padres)
  • $8 million (approximately) not paid to Kyle Schwarber
  • $2 million (approximately) not paid to Jose Martinez
  • $1.6 million (approximately) not paid to Caratini
  • $1.5 million (approximately) not paid to Albert Almora Jr.
  • $1.5 million (approximately) not paid to Ryan Tepera

That’s $37.6 million. Subtract from that the estimated $7 million they’ll have to pay Davies, and that’s about $30 million of savings. They also save $20 million not paid to Darvish in 2022 and $19 million not paid to Yu in 2023.

What we’ve been arguing about for the last couple of days is what’s going to happen to this money. Is ownership simply going to pocket it? Or are the Cubs going to use this money (and the approximately $39 million saved on Darvish’s deal past 2021) to offer contract extensions to core players such as Willson Contreras, Javier Baez, Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant?

Until we know the answer to those questions, I am not going to assume the team is beginning a rebuild. There’s a rumor out there that Contreras is being shopped. If that actually happens — since Contreras’ 2021 salary is likely in the relatively affordable $6 million range — that would signal “rebuild” to me. As always, we await developments.

At ESPN.com, Kiley McDaniel posted a long analysis of this deal (and the Padres’ other trade with the Rays for Blake Snell), the reasons it was made, and a few thoughts on the prospects the Cubs received. The article’s a 4,000+ word opus and on ESPN+, so I thought I’d share a few relevant portions, with my comments.

First, on the cost-cutting itself:

It’s unclear if there’s more cost-cutting to come, but indications are that this may have gotten the Cubs into a range that they can manage for 2021. The bigger questions for the Cubs, discussed in my offseason outlooks, is what they’ll be in 2022. Rizzo, Baez and Bryant are set to be free agents, and it’s hard to see the Cubs signing more than one of them, unless their markets really collapse or league revenues don’t rebound. The 2021 club, if adding a couple vets on one-year deals to fill holes, is still competitive in the NL Central, which seems like the plan. The division isn’t strong and also appears to be cutting payroll across the board, so there’s still an opportunity to make a playoff run here even if this team doesn’t look like it would get deep.

I’m not sure I completely agree that the Cubs can’t sign more than one of the pending free agents. They can almost certainly sign both Rizzo and Baez, if they so choose, and perhaps Contreras (who can’t be a free agent until after 2022) as well. I think it’s widely assumed the Cubs would probably trade Bryant, likely not now coming off a bad year, but perhaps at the trade deadline.

McDaniel’s analysis of the NL Central is spot-on. No, this Cubs team is not a World Series contender as currently constituted. But why not try to win a weak NL Central in 2021 while putting some financial resources aside to contend in 2022 and beyond? In fact, Jeff Passan said essentially the same thing in an ESPN+ column early Wednesday:

The Cubs could have held on to Darvish and signed George Springer or Trevor Bauer. They could have traded catcher Willson Contreras to replenish their farm system and signed J.T. Realmuto. Had they done that, though, would they have been better than the Dodgers? The Padres? The Braves? No. Probably not. If having a lesser chance in 2021 means having a greater chance in 2022 and beyond, is it worth it?

That’s the questions teams ask themselves. The premise is false, of course; who’s to say they can’t win in 2021 and 2022 and beyond? The answer, dissatisfactory though it may be, is most owners. With Darvish gone and Javier Baez’s, Kris Bryant’s and Anthony Rizzo’s contracts expiring after this season, the Cubs theoretically could take their relatively empty balance sheet and use free agency and trades to reload before ‘22 — and do so with a farm system that, with a few more moves in the coming months, could wind up as the one of the strongest, if not the best, in the NL Central.

Passan is correct, I believe, and I suspect this is exactly what Jed Hoyer was thinking when he made this deal.

Regarding 2022, there is, of course, this question: Will we have a season at all that year? The MLB/MLBPA labor agreement expires at the end of the 2021 season, and contentious negotiations are expected. However, it would not surprise me, given the state of baseball at this moment, if owners and players simply agreed to extend the current agreement by a year, to give themselves some time to regroup after the pandemic and perhaps have a “normal” 2022 season with full fan attendance.

Here’s what McDaniel says about the four prospects the Cubs received in the Darvish deal:

SS Yeison Santana, 20, is the best prospect right now of this group and was my breakout pick last winter for the 2020 minor league season that never happened. He was a helium prospect at this time last year, adding to his solid defensive fit at shortstop with more pop and contact skills to go with an already solid approach and one of the best swings in the system. He has a good shot to open 2021 in Low-A.

OF Owen Caissie, 18, was the 45th overall pick last summer out of a Canadian high school. He was a draft model favorite due to being young for the class, a 6-foot-4 athlete with strong measurables including exit velocity and loft. He hasn’t played a pro game yet, like Preciado and Mena, but he has everyday upside in right field, with a considerable amount of risk and uncertainty since he wasn’t on the summer showcase circuit, so the track record is pretty short.

3B Reggie Preciado, 17, was the top prospect from the Padres’ 2019 July 2 class, signing for $1.3 million out of Panama. He’s a lanky, 6-4 switch hitter who is a shortstop for now but likely slides over to third base. The early returns from two falls of instructs are that there’s real hit-and-power upside and a sure fit on the left side of the infield. Until he plays real pro games, he also has considerable risk, but has a little more scouting track record since he has been on the scene for about two years, leading up to his signing and his short unofficial pro experience.

OF Ismael Mena, 18, was another signee in that 2019 J2 class, signing for $2.2 million out of the Dominican Republic. He also hasn’t played a pro game and is 6-3, swings lefty and has a real shot to play center field long-term, but is projectable enough he could fill out and move to a corner. He’s behind Preciado in terms of prospect value, but also flashes hit/power/speed upside, though with more contact questions than Preciado, but more track record than Caissie.

The Cubs added two top international signings from the 2019 class, a second-round pick from 2020 and someone who’ll play at Myrtle Beach (now Low-A) in 2021. Granted, all these guys are quite a distance from the major leagues. McDaniel noted that this was “a specific choice Hoyer made,” and that choice appears to be to begin re-stocking the Cubs farm system, which had fallen into disarray over the last two or three years. In September, MLB.com ranked the Cubs system 26th. McDaniel writes that this deal puts the Cubs “around 20th,” so there’s an improvement.

I tend to be a “glass-half-full” kind of guy, so I’m not as “torches and pitchforks” as some here seem to be. We do not yet know how the rest of this offseason is going to play out for the Chicago Cubs, whether others will be traded, and where the savings from trading Darvish will wind up. Until we know those things, I will reserve judgment.

I’ll leave you with this from Passan’s article regarding how things stand between players and owners:

It’s some owners pushing for a shortened 2021 season and players saying there’s no legal standing for the league to cut back on games and the fight that could come of that. It’s players’ years-old cries of anti-competitiveness being met with rather damning evidence of it. It’s the game wrapping up 2020 with no sign that some of the sport’s clearest ills will be answered in 2021.

Thus, the state of baseball as the calendar is about to turn to 2021. Happy New Year, indeed.