The Chicago Cubs suffered a serious blow on Sunday when pitcher Yu Darvish, their prize free-agent acquisition, left a rehab start at Class-A South Bend after only one inning.
Darvish gave up a hit and walked one in the scoreless inning, but came off the mound shaking his arm. When he came out for the second, he visibly winced after each warmup pitch, at which point his catcher went to the mound and called for the trainer.
Darvish, who hasn't pitched in the majors since May 20 due to elbow and triceps injuries, later described the feeling as similar to the pain he felt after his first rehab start in June. He pitched through that pain before shutting things down, but this time thought better of it and cut the outing short.
It's the latest setback in one of the worst seasons that a premier free agent of Darvish's level has ever had. Given the hype surrounding his signing, the financial outlay the Cubs put forward for the 32-year-old, and the hole he had to fill, some are already calling him the free agency bust of 2018—and perhaps of the decade.
Is he? Maybe. His season is certainly lost, but it may not be time to write him off as a total loss just yet.
Off a cliff
The 32-year-old righty signed a six-year, $126m contract in the offseason—the biggest of any pitcher and the second-biggest overall last winter—but cratered even before his injury, going 1-3 with a 4.95 ERA and a 1.425 WHIP in eight starts.
He allowed four or more runs and three or more walks in half of those starts and only got out of the fifth inning in three.
He hit the DL a week after he last pitched—which was, ironically, his best start of the season. After about a month of recovery, he went for a rehab start in late June, allowing one run on three hits in five innings. But he complained afterward of tiredness, and a subsequent bullpen session ended up going poorly. He was subsequently diagnosed with an elbow impingement and took another six weeks to ramp up to finally taking Sunday's rehab outing—and we all know how that went.
There is now a definite chance that Darvish doesn't pitch again this year. That's not what you want to see from your top free agent signing—especially one signed to fill a Jake Arrieta-sized hole in the starting rotation.
Darvish's setback comes at a bad time for the Cubs. They own the National League's best record but are reeling from injuries to the rotation. Apart from Darvish, Mike Montgomery and Drew Smyly are also on the disabled list. Cole Hamels has been lights-out since arriving at the trade deadline, but the Cubs are in a depth crunch, and fellow free agent signing Tyler Chatwood hasn't been able to hit the strike zone with a shotgun this season.
The 2018 season is lost for Darvish, but passing judgment on his entire contract is still premature. There are still five years left on his deal. He can opt out after the 2019 season, but unless he has a monumental year, it likely wouldn't be prudent to do so. A free-agent deal should be judged on its entirety, and there's a long way to go on that.
As badly as Darvish's overall performance has been, there are some peripherals that point to a recovery. His strikeout rate was actually slightly up from his overall numbers a year ago (11 this year, 10.1 between the Rangers and Dodgers a year ago), and his hits per nine innings are stable as well, only ticking up a fraction. What's killed him has been his walk rate, which has spiked from 2.8 last season to 4.7 over his eight starts this year. The extra runners are where the runs have come from—and an arm injury is a catalyst for that kind of loss of control.
Darvish will have a lot to do to recover from this bad season, but he also has plenty of time to make his contract worth the Cubs' while. Whether he will is for the future to tell, but to say this minute he's a full-on free agent bust is premature.