With or without any further transactions, the Astros are in terrific shape for the 2018 season. But they could be better.
On paper today, the Astros are one of the best teams in baseball. There isn’t anything profound or insightful by that statement. This team just won a World Series, and unless you’re the fire-selling Marlins, the defending champions tend to be looked upon favorably. It comes with the championship turf.
That said, the Astros would be foolish about not making improvements. Quality franchises can foresee rough waters, and navigate their way through in an effective manner. The starting rotation could be that rough body of water for Houston. As you may already know, Dallas Keuchel is a free-agent following the 2018 season. Lance McCullers, for as awesome as he is, cannot stay healthy for an entire season. Rather, his right arm won’t allow it. Justin Verlander is under contract for just two more seasons. Charlie Morton is under contract for just ONE more season. The Astros’ rotation as currently constructed has a short shelf life.
Enter Yu Darvish.
At first glance, Darvish would obviously make the Astros better on paper. Not only would he provide Houston with another quality arm, he also provides that cushion in case injuries plague the rotation once again.
Oh, I also realize that Darvish had a rough postseason. No, wait, two less-than-stellar starts in the World Series. Tipping pitches have been linked as the likely culprit in those two starts. Darvish is still an above-average major league starter based on his career marks. And tipping pitches could be an issue that is easily fixable.
Why do I express such confidence in Darvish?
Well, for one, the velocity stills seems to be there. Fangraphs, for example, had Darvish post similar velocity readings for his career in 2017. The only pitch last season that was much different than his career reading was Darvish’s curveball, which averaged 73.9 MPH. For his career, Darvish’s curveball has had an average velocity of 77.8 MPH. Of course, his curveball usage per Fangraphs remains in single percentage points.
In comparison with another popular free-agent target, Jake Arrieta, the Astros may be wise to invest in Darvish. For example, Arrieta’s sinker has an average velocity of 95.3 MPH in 2015 and 94.4 MPH in 2016.
Not too shabby.
But, and this is key, Arrieta’s sinker velocity last season was 92.4 MPH. Arrieta in the past two seasons –2016 and 2017 — has used his sinker over 60% of the time, according to Fangraphs. Anytime a pitcher loses any noticeable velocity on a highly-used pitch, well, that concerns me. By the way, hitters posted a .251 batting average against on Arrieta’s mostly used pitch per Brooks Baseball. Not terrible, mind you, however, it is a far cry from his opponent’s .198 batting average against the offering in Arrieta’s 2015 Cy Young season. The drop in velocity, though, has to be a red flag.
Darvish, on the other hand, doesn’t have a velocity issue.
In terms of actual results, Darvish was quietly effective.
For example, Darvish had another sub-4.00 ERA in 2017. While his performance with the Rangers wasn’t exactly stellar, Darvish managed to turn around his season with the Dodgers as he posted a 3.44 ERA and 3.38 FIP in 49.2 innings in Los Angeles. His strikeout rate also jumped four percentage points as a Dodger. And the walk rate was only 6.4%. Teams will bet on that short-term improvement in this pitching environment.
The concern comes back to the actual contract Darvish may receive from potential suitors.
Dave Cameron of Fangraphs listed Darvish as his top free agent entering the offseason. And the contract he projected Darvish to land in mid-November? Six-years, $168 million. Honestly, that is still a fair projection even in this abnormally slow free-agency. The Astros may disagree, though. The front office led by Jeff Luhnow may not value Darvish that much. Cameron’s comp to Darvish in Stephen Strasburg remains accurate in my opinion. Despite the innings issue mentioned by Cameron, Darvish should have no trouble finding a new (old?) place of employment for 2018 and beyond.
Overall, the Astros should give Darvish a long look. While he has an innings issue with an injury history, the projections still like him. In fact, Steamer has Darvish posting a 3.6 fWAR. I would gladly take that in a rotation. And the Astros have to examine their long-term plans. The Keuchel contract and the health of McCullers lingers over this team as the new year begins.
**Statistics and information courtesy of Fangraphs and Brooks Baseball**