Saturday’s news that the Cubs were signing Yu Darvish now makes the Cubs the team to beat in the National League.
Darvish is the centerpiece of a loaded rotation that is among the two or three best in all of baseball, and his addition sent a message to the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals that despite their active offseasons the Cubs are still clearly the team to beat in the NL Central.
With a lineup of talented young hitters who still haven’t reached their peak and a loaded pitching staff full of depth the Cubs should surpass the 92.5-win projection that Las Vegas recently posted, and they should have a great shot to return to the Fall Classic this October.
The baseball free agent market has been in a holding pattern for the past three months and the Cubs, like the other 29 MLB teams, have been waiting for players to accept much lower offers than most were expecting when they hit the open market at the end of the 2017 season.
The Cubs entered the offseason with two major needs to address: their much-maligned bullpen that struggled in the second half of last season, and the their starting rotation that had two openings needing to be filled.
Both Jake Arrieta and John Lackey had expiring contracts, and while Lackey was not expected to continue his career on the mound, Arrieta was looking for the first big deal of his career. A deal that his agent, Scott Boras, openly said they expected to be seven years in length at an average salary of $30 million or more.
“I don’t think a six- or seven-year deal is out of the question,” Arrieta said. "I feel very confident I can pitch until I’m 40. I do everything possible to make sure I’m healthy and durable. It could be six or seven more years. Or it could be twelve.”
But instead, the Cubs pursued Darvish and made it clear he was their top choice instead of pursuing Arrieta, who they knew well and had reached the pinnacle of baseball with when the Cubs, in part rode his arm to a World Series title in 2016.
So do the Cubs have a better rotation today with Darvish in the fold than they did in 2017 when they had Arrieta and John Lackey? The answer is unequivocally yes, because Darvish is an upgrade from Arrieta as is Tyler Chatwood from Lackey.
Yes, Arrieta has proven that he can succeed on baseball’s biggest stage, going 2-0 in the World Series and dominating the Cleveland Indians twice in Cleveland when the Cubs were trailing in the series. Darvish has had some solid postseason success but his awful performance in the 2017 World Series when he was rocked by the Houston Astros twice has left a bad taste in some fans' mouths.
However, Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and the rest of the Cubs front office did a deep analytical assessment of Darvish and came away convinced that he would be worth a major financial investment. Their research told them that Darvish possessed the swing-and-miss stuff that plays in pressure-packed moments with a playoff berth on the line. And they are convinced that they can fix his struggles with tipping his pitches that reportedly led to his World Series struggles against the Astros.
Darvish was also very impressed with the Cubs pitching infrastructure that has helped to get the best out of many of their pitchers. Current Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks, who shares an agent with Darvish, has spoken many times about how detailed the Cubs pitching scouting reports and game plans are and how much they have helped him become a successful big league starter.
Arrieta turned his career around when he arrived in Chicago after struggling mightily with the Baltimore Orioles, and he felt the Cubs approach to pitching was a huge part in resurrecting his career after he considered walking away from the sport before he was traded.
But now, Arrieta will have to pitch somewhere else as the Cubs have moved on. They have landed a pitcher in Darvish that Epstein has long wanted to acquire. In fact, the Cubs were the runner-up to the Texas Rangers when Darvish left Japan and came to the US in 2012. Darvish figures to sit atop the Cubs rotation with Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood manning spots two through five and giving the Cubs perhaps baseball’s deepest and most talented starting rotation.
Several seasons ago, as the Cubs were going through the pain of the building process and losing 289 games in three seasons, Tom Ricketts promised Cubs fans that when the time was right to spend big money, the checkbook would be there to support Epstein, Hoyer and their plan.
He has spent and spent big when his front office has asked him to and today he delivered again. And that decision just might have the World Series trophy making a return trip to the Friendly Confines.