There are a number of ways to go about improving the Mariners pitching staff this offseason, and signing an ace is not essential. Alex Cobb would be a major step forward. Lance Lynn would help edge Seattle 3/5ths of the way to Kate’s dream of a 100% former Cardinals starting rotation. Tyler Chatwood is... debatable. If Seattle wants a surefire frontline ace to accompany James Paxton, however, there’s only one avenue they can pursue with significant control. Yu Darvish would improve the Mariners significantly next year - of that there is no debate, but his acquisition would be costly in payroll and also in long-term flexibility.
The Mariners may be priced out of Darvish’s market of course, rendering the point moot. The man starting tonight’s NLCS game has made adjustments that have unlocked a new level of production since joining the Dodgers. He will assuredly be pursued by his current team, who might as well start printing their own currency on Pantone 294 colored paper. Darvish is also expected to be sought after by his former team, whose lone star player turns 39 in April. The Yankees, Angels, and Cubs stand out as well in needs and available resources, so there will be a healthy market for Darvish. The Mariners shouldn’t be beholden to making a splash, but they would be remiss to not throw their compass-adorned hats into the ring.
The free agent market for starting pitching this year, as Ben outlined recently, has no surefire hits. Darvish, Jake Arrieta, and possibly Masahiro Tanaka are the headliners. Each has a shaky injury history, and both Arrieta and Tanaka will cost a 2nd round draft pick and $500k in international signing money. The dearth of high-ceiling talent in the Mariners system makes me loathe to see them part with draft picks. Arrieta’s dramatic loss of velocity over the last couple years is worrisome, and I’d just as soon see another team reward Scott Boras’ favorite squirrel. Darvish will be expensive, but if Seattle wants an ace, he’s the guy to woo.
Darvish will cost a lot annually. I have seen 7 years, $150 million thrown around, which is a hefty $21.4 million APY. that would fall just under Johnny Cueto’s recent contract.
Darvish’s camp has been making the case for a deal in line with Stephen Strasburg’s 7 year/$175 million extension, which is one of the funkier distributions of money you’ll ever see in what is theoretically a $25 million APY contract. The Mariners have around $25-30 million in freed up money this offseason, plus an ambiguous "room for growth" according to John Stanton. 7/$150 million is absolutely within Seattle’s reach, but the 7 years is much more worrisome than the $150 million. Darvish would be 38 at the end of his contract, and for a guy who has already had Tommy John, that’s a recipe for disaster.
A good Darvish deal for the Mariners would have to be appropriately tied to both his own availability and the Mariners’ stars’ remaining productive years. It would resemble Johnny Cueto’s 6 year/$130 million deal. Cueto was younger, more durable, and more consistently productive than Darvish, and received an opt-out after his second season (this offseason) that would’ve allowed him another, similar look at free agency. Instead, Cueto got hurt after one and a quarter brilliant seasons, but will still hold reasonable trade value for a Giants team that saw its focus shift from contention to potential rebuild in an instant. Crucially, the opt-out flexibility meant Cueto did not recieve a no-trade clause. If the Mariners pursue Darvish, they would be wise to double down. My rough proposal would be in the range of 6/$140 million:
2018: $20 mil, opt-out after
2019: $25 mil, opt-out after
2020: $25 mil, opt-out after
2021: $23 mil, opt-out after
2022: $22 mil, opt-out after, vests on not missing 130 games w/elbow or shoulder injury, $8 mil buyout
2023: $20 mil, vests on not missing 130 games w/elbow or shoulder injury, $3 mil buyout
That means offering Darvish yearly opt-outs. That means staggering the pay of the contract to be loaded into the front and middle, where Darvish’s decline would coincide with the expected decline of Robinson Canó. That means paying more up front to ensure the ability to move Yu if Seattle finally commits to a rebuild, and adding Iwakuma/Félix-like vesting options at the end to account for Darvish’s mercurial health. It’s a rough framework, and absolutely could be blown out of the water by a more brazen team. The Mariners shouldn’t be more brazen, but they could be this brazen.
Adding an ace who, as Grant Brisbee put it for Cueto "if he pitches well enough to want to opt-out, we’ll be thrilled," will make Seattle better if they really intend to go for it this year. Providing opt-outs mitigates their risk while giving Darvish a chance at another payday if he performs but Seattle flops, and Seattle gets the freedom to try and move Darvish if he remains productive. If he gets hurt, the Mariners are up a creek, but the vesting options would provide some relief as Seattle moves forward to the post-Canó era. Lastly, as commenter TIFO noted here, Darvish’s relationship with Shohei Ohtani could also advance the Mariners’ chances of luring him to Seattle, though that’s such an unknown that it certainly won't be the basis for a Darvish deal.
I don’t know that this is the best allocation of resources for Seattle right now, but as a team with precious few non-MLB assets to trade for a starter, free agency is the only clear route. This would leave Seattle with only $3-8 million to plug their hole at first base, barring a boost in payroll, and would essentially preclude them from any other depth moves outside of minor upgrades. This is a lot of words to say I’m not sure about my own proposal, but that’s the truth.
Would you want the Mariners to sign Yu Darvish?
This poll is closed
Yes, even for 7/$175, he’s worth it to this team.
Yes, if he can be had for something resembling the Johnny Cueto deal or what’s proposed above (6/$130-140)
No, the Mariners need to focus on depth, not another ace.
No, Darvish is a bad deal and/or the Mariners shouldn’t commit major money to any new contracts right now.