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Yu Darvish to the Chicago Cubs: What does it mean for Bryce Harper and the Washington Nationals?

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Hint: Everything gets more complicated.

Texas Rangers v Washington Nationals

In a move that may finally break the logjam that has been baseball’s free-agent and trade market, the Chicago Cubs and right-handed pitcher Yu Darvish agreed to a six-year, $126 million contract this past weekend.

The deal, which can increase in value up to $150 million if Darvish can meet certain performance standards, vastly improves Chicago’s aging pitching rotation and re-cements their place as a World Series contender.

The deal’s effects reach out across the league as well, including to the Washington Nationals. Here are three ways the team will feel Darvish’s impact:

The rest of the starting pitching market

Tampa Bay Rays v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Now that Darvish, widely considered the top free-agent, has set the market price, the pitchers that reside towards the middle of the market (Lance Lynn, Alex Cobb) may have a better idea of what to ask for, and teams may have a better idea of how much to offer.

Currently, the Nationals employ A.J. Cole as their presumptive fifth starter, whose best season in the majors thus far could be considered as just average enough to pass by, with a 3.81 ERA in the 2017 season. However, his FIP — which sat at 5.20 — suggests that Cole may have enjoyed some luck en route to his relatively low ERA.

With that in mind, it would not be surprising if the Nationals went out and acquired a last-minute upgrade to their rotation — but at the moment, they have not been connected to any potential targets in any serious way, though the baseball world seems convinced that Jake Arrieta will end up in Washington.

Retaliation

Miami Marlins v Colorado Rockies Photo by Rob Foldy/Miami Marlins via Getty Images

The addition of Darvish took the Cubs’ rotation from one that was aging rapidly (and had lost its presumed ace in Jake Arrieta) to one that can compete with any rotation in baseball. The Cubs’ presumed top four of Darvish/Kyle Hendricks/Jon Lester/Jose Quintana lacks the firepower at the top like the Nationals have in Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg — but it’s considerably deeper than what the Nats have past their top two.

With the Cubs retaining their offense that beat the Nationals in the NLDS last October, and the Dodgers keeping nearly all of their 104-win team, it is clear that the Dodgers and the Cubs are the NL’s top dogs. The Nationals — the third wheel in this scenario — may need to find something that brings them back to the level of the top two contenders.

One option could be shoring up the offense by eliminating its only true weak spot (Matt Wieters) and replacing him with J.T. Realmuto. To acquire Realmuto, the Nationals would likely have trade one of either Victor Robles or Juan Soto.

Another option: adding another starting pitcher, if not one of Darvish’s caliber, as discussed above.

Bryce Harper

National League Division Series Game Five: Chicago Cubs v. Washington Nationals

The big one.

With the Yankees’ acquisition of Giancarlo Stanton (and his $300 million contract), it nominally took them out of the running for Bryce Harper and his presumed mega-contract that could reach above $400 million (though according to Scott Boras, anything is possible). The hype around Harper, who had expressed interest in wearing the pinstripes before, almost immediately shifted to Chicago, where his childhood friend Kris Bryant plays third base.

Bryant on Harper, per the Chicago Tribune:

“But who wouldn’t want Bryce Harper on their team? He’s 25, and six years in the league he’s a superstar. He would bring a lot to any team.”

However, adding Darvish and his $126 million dollar deal for the next few years presents some obstacles to the “meant-to-be” joining of Bryant and Harper’s forces in the North Side come 2019.

With $118.5 million dollars committed to Jason Heyward from 2019 on, presumably around $100 million committed to Darvish from 2019 on, at least $47 million committed to Jon Lester from 2019 on, the Cubs already have a lot of contracts that will be very difficult if not impossible to move.

Moreover, the team has hopes of potentially extending Kris Bryant and/or Anthony Rizzo (who will both likely command upwards of $200 million when they hit free-agency in 2022 and 2020, respectively), thus making it even harder to find a way for the Cubs to dedicate another $350+ million to Harper.

Yes, it is possible that Harper will be willing to take a relative pay cut to go play with Bryant. However, it is unlikely that no team will offer him the type of contract that he believes he deserves; the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers, both of which are located near to Harper’s Las Vegas home, could both make plays for Harper, the Dodgers especially if they lose Clayton Kershaw in free-agency come 2019.

However, San Francisco has massive monetary commitments into the future surrounding Buster Posey, Johnny Cueto, Marc Melancon and co., and L.A. could as well if they deem retaining Kershaw more important than going after Harper.

This could potentially leave Washington in the driver’s seat to obtain Harper’s services, if another unlikely contender (see: Philadelphia, Boston, et. al) doesn’t step up — something that seemed unlikely before December.