Any team takes a big risk with a long-term free-agent pitcher signing.
In the Cubs’ mind, Yu Darvish is a decrease in risk than, say, bringing back Jake Arietta.
With sabermetrics and hyper-analysis overwhelming baseball, the wild spending that used to predominate in free-agent starters is gone. That’s the big reason why the market moved so slowly going into spring training. The realization that pitching has a high mortality rate and being on the hook for three, four years of dead money after an arm has gone south keeps most big-league wallets locked with agents demanding as many as seven years.
Fortunately, fate has been kinder to the Cubs in the majority of their free-agent starter signings — much more so than for their closer acquisitions. So if you use as an omen and portent, Darvish won’t blow up in the face of Theo Epstein, who has one big misjudgment on his Cubs record for free-agent pitchers that has been more than canceled out by Jon Lester’s 2016 performance.
Looking back, we asked Al Yellon, managing editor of the popular BleedCubbieBlue.com blog, to rate all the major free-agent signings of Cubs pitchers in history. Amazingly, Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins was the Cubs’ first such acquisition in his return to Chicago in Dec. 1981 after an eight-season absence, as Dallas Green sought to remake the somnolent franchise from the Wrigley family regime.
“I had a lot of firsts with the ballclub,” said Jenkins, who is the only Cub to ever win 20 games six years in a row and led the NL in strikeouts with 273 in 1969. He added one more whiff to his total in 1970 to hold the team’s season strikeout record
Here is Yellon’s free-agent starters ranking in results:
Lester, Ryan Dempster, Ted Lilly, Jason Hammel, Kevin Tapani, Jason Marquis, Greg Maddux, Jenkins, Jose Guzman, Jaime Navarro, Danny Jackson, Edwin Jackson.
Lester, of course, was 19-5 in the 2016 World Series season to precede his usual stalwart postseason performance. Before and after that season, the lefty has not been his vintage self. But to give the Cubs that winning panache at just the right time makes any Epstein over-payment in dollars or years well worth it. Lester will now rank No. 2 behind Darvish, but always goes to the front of the line once October arrives.
Dempster was a semi-gamble signing in late 2003 by then-GM Jim Hendry. The comedic Canadian came off Tommy John surgery and did not come back to active duty until later in 2004. Necessity made him convert to the closer’s role in 2005, and he performed well. Dempster always was a starter at heart, so he settled into that role in 2008 and actually ranked as the Cubs’ most effective rotation guy. His NLDS control meltdown against the Dodgers takes a lot of sheen off his 17-win output. Dempster was still a competitive starter for the next few seasons, though, and was perceived of enough value several teams engaged in a bidding battle with Epstein near the 2012 trade deadline. The eventual winner, the Texas Rangers, gave up unheralded prospect Kyle Hendricks for Dempster. That means the 2003 gamble is the one that keeps on giving to the Cubs.
I might disagree with Yellon and put Lilly ahead of Dempster. Signed by Hendry while the GM was undergoing a heart procedure, lefty Lilly had 15- and 17-win seasons in his first two years as a Cub. He was as tough a character as could exist in early 21st century baseball. The demerit by manager Lou Piniella was giving Lilly just one playoff start in 2007-08.
Yellon rates Hammel highly because he was a serviceable starter for the 2015-16 Cubs. Like Lilly with Dempster, I might put Tapani ahead of Hammel. A longtime Minnesota Twins war horse, Tapani had a good second-half with the woeful 1997 Cubs, then led the wild-card playoff team with 19 wins (albeit with a high ERA) in 1998. A Cubs fan growing up in Escanaba, Mich., Tapani was hit hard and often his final three seasons before he retired after 2001. The early production, though, rates him a success as a signee.
Yellon also gives Marquis and edge over the return of Maddux. He said Marquis gave the Cubs just what they wanted — a competitive fifth starter in 2007-08 who did not embarrass himself. I’d give Maddux the edge in his return, past his prime. The Hall of Famer won 16 in his first season as a returnee in 2004. If Mark Prior and Kerry Wood had not derailed in their physical condition from that season onward, a diminished Maddux would have been a fine rotation complement and pitching mentor. Being more susceptible to lefty power hitters just stuck out more when more was expected of Maddux.
Jenkins is down the list because he only pitched his final two seasons as a free-agent signee. On the bad 1982 Cubs, though, his 14-15 season would have translated into 17 or 18 wins on a decent team. Jenkins got his 3,000th career strikeout in 1982. He was only 6-9 in his last season.
Jose Guzman was not a bad pitcher when GM Larry Himes imported him in 1993. But as a substitute for the bungled-away Maddux, the latter coming into his prime, Guzman came off negatively. I don’t know what Epstein had in mind overpaying Edwin Jackson, at best a journeyman, at the start of the rebuilding program. But every baseball wizard is entitled to a couple of turkeys.
Darvish could have gone almost anywhere. He chose the Cubs. That in itself augers well for the deal. Now the roulette wheel spins on the guy’s health. That will determine whether Darvish goes to the top of the list of free agents, or takes the parachute downward.
Category Chicago Baseball History Feature Tags Chicago Baseball History, Chicago Cubs, Fergie Jenkins, Greg Maddux, Yu Darvish