Cubs didn't fret over Fall Classic struggles: 'We know there's more to Yu Darvish than what happened in the World Series'

Cubs didn't fret over Fall Classic struggles: 'We know there's more to Yu Darvish than what happened in the World Series'

MESA, Ariz. — Yu Darvish is a really, really good pitcher. But he most definitely wasn't during last year's World Series.

Pitching with the Los Angeles Dodgers on baseball's biggest stage, Darvish was rocked by the Houston Astros, who had a tendency to do that to opposing pitchers with their murderer's row of a lineup. Darvish made two starts in the Fall Classic, though his performances were anything but classic. He combined to pitch just 3.1 innings and allowed nine runs on nine hits, including a pair of home runs.

In the "what have you done for me lately" world of pro sports, that left a bad tastes in a lot of people's mouths. Theo Epstein and his front office were not among them, however.

The Cubs made a monster splash at the outset of spring training, signing Darvish to a six-year deal and ignoring those two starts from last October, instead focusing on what he's done in the entirety of his brilliant major league career and hoping he stabilizers their rotation for years to come.

There were, of course, reasons to be concerned about what Darvish did against the Astros. In addition to those ugly numbers, there was discussion that he was tipping his pitches, making it easier for Astros hitters, who needed no help smacking the ball around the yard, to light him up.

But the Cubs opted to pay more attention to his four All-Star appearances, his 1,021 career strikeouts in 832.1 career innings, his two top-10 finishes in Cy Young voting and his 11.0 career K/9 in six seasons since coming over from Japan. Epstein went as far as calling Darvish "the preeminent strikeout pitcher of our generation."

"The World Series was a struggle," Epstein said Tuesday during Darvish's introductory press conference. "First of all, I think there were a lot of reasons for what happened in the World Series, from — as has been discussed — the possibility of tipping pitches to the difficulty with the baseballs. And the Astros were red hot. They won the World Series for a reason. They were swinging the bat great against everybody. But I don’t think we’d be doing our job if we evaluated based on a two-game sample.

"He’s been over here for six years, he’s proven himself as an elite pitcher, a top-of-the-rotation guy who can make adjustments. When things go wrong, like they do for everybody in this game, he makes adjustments and learns from it and comes back stronger. If anything, I think getting close to a championship and getting all the way there has only increased his motivation and his focus on winning a World Series, and that’s what we’re here to do, as well."

Darvish has done the adversity thing before. He had Tommy John surgery that wiped out his 2015 season and part of his 2016 campaign, as well. Last season was his first full year back from the surgery, and though he had a 4.01 ERA through 22 starts with the Texas Rangers, he shone after going to the Dodgers, posting a 3.44 ERA in his nine regular-season starts there before dominating the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Cubs in the first two playoff rounds. He allowed just one run and struck out seven in both his NLDS start against the D-backs and in his NLCS start against the Cubs, going five innings in the former and 6.1 innings in the latter.

The Cubs got an up close and personal look at Darvish last fall, and well, let's just say they're happy they don't have to worry about facing him in the postseason anymore.

"He’s an elite arm within major league pitching," manager Joe Maddon said Tuesday. "When this guy is right, and he normally is right, he’s the strikeout guy that he is, he’s got multiple pitches, he doesn’t walk a whole lot of folks, he’s going to be out there sucking up some innings. He just provides so many positives for us. It’s wonderful to have him on your side.

"When you’re game-planning against him, you watch that first and second inning and all of a sudden … you think, ‘Oh my god, it’s going to be a long day.’ Now he’s on your side."

For Darvish's part, he's not thinking just about went wrong in October. He's focused on improving and growing in all facets, and the Cubs are ready to help him with that. Their pitching infrastructure has turned Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks into aces and won Jon Lester another World Series ring.

"There are a lot of articles that I’ve read pointing out what I’ve done wrong, but I did well in the previous five games. It’s not just about the World Series games," Darvish said. "There were some part during the whole 2017 season that I could fix. So that’s what I’d like to take away."

"We look at the pitcher in totality," Epstein said. "If you look at it, he’s bounced back extremely well from the Tommy John surgery. His stuff is as good as anyone’s, and we think there are things we can do with him to keep him growing and better. Certainly felt bad for him during the World Series but also felt it might be an opportunity. Other teams overreact to that. We know there’s more to Yu Darvish than what happened in the World Series."

The Cubs know that already. They witnessed it firsthand. And now they're banking on Darvish being able to get rid of that bad taste in people's mouths. And quickly.

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?


Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

MESA, Ariz. — You don’t need to spend long searching the highlight reels to figure out why Javy Baez goes by “El Mago.”

Spanish for “The Magician,” that moniker is a fitting one considering what Baez can do with his glove and his arm up the middle of the infield. The king of tags, Baez also dazzles with his throwing arm and his range. He looks like a Gold Glove kind of player when you watch him do these amazing things. And it’s no surprise that in his first media session of the spring, he was talking about winning that award.

“Just to play hard and see what I can do. Obviously, try to be healthy the whole year again. And try to get that Gold Glove that I want because a lot of people know me for my defense,” he said Friday at Cubs camp. “Just try to get a Gold Glove and stay healthy the whole year.”

Those high expectations — in this case, being the best defensive second baseman in the National League — fall in line with everything the rest of the team is saying about their own high expectations. It’s been “World Series or bust” from pretty much everyone over the past couple weeks in Mesa.

Baez might not be all the way there just yet. Joe Maddon talked earlier this week about his reminders that Baez needs to keep focusing on making the easy plays while staying a master of the magnificent.

“What I talked to him about was, when he had to play shortstop, please make the routine play routinely and permit your athleticism to play. Because when the play requires crazinesss, you’re there, you can do that,” Maddon said. “But this straight up ground ball three-hopper to shortstop, come get the ball, play it through and make an accurate throw in a routine manner. Apparently that stuck. Because he told me once he thought in those terms, it really did slow it down for him. And he did do a better job at doing that.”

But the biggest question for Cubs fans when it comes to Baez is when the offense will catch up to his defense. Baez hit a game-winning homer run in his first major league game and smacked 23 of them last season, good for fifth on a team full of power bats. But arguably just as famous as Baez’s defensive magic is his tendency to chase pitches outside of the strike zone. He had 144 strikeouts last season and reached base at a .317 clip. Seven Cubs — including notable struggling hitters Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist — had higher on-base percentages in 2017.

Baez, for one, is staying focused on what he does best, saying he doesn’t really have any specific offensive goals for the upcoming season.

“I’m not worrying about too much about it,” he said. “I’m just trying to play defense, and just let the offense — see what happens.”

Maddon, unsurprisingly, talked much more about what Baez needs to do to become a better all-around player, and unsurprisingly that included being more selective at the plate.

“One of the best base runners in the game, one of the finest arms, most acrobatic, greatest range on defense, power. The biggest thing for me for him is to organize the strike zone,” Maddon said. “Once he does that, heads up. He’s at that point now, at-bat wise, if you want to get those 500, 600 plate appearances, part of that is to organize your zone, accept your walks, utilize the whole field, that kind of stuff. So that would be the level that I think’s the next level for him.”

Will Baez have a season’s worth of at-bats to get that done? The versatile Cubs roster includes a couple guys who split time between the infield and outfield in Zobrist and Ian Happ. Getting their more consistent bats in the lineup might mean sacrificing Baez’s defense on certain days. Baez, of course, also has the ability to slide over to shortstop to spell Addison Russell, like he did when Russell was on the disabled list last season.

Until Baez learns how to navigate that strike zone a bit better, it might make Maddon more likely to mix and match other options, rather than considering him an everyday lock like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.

But like Russell, Albert Almora Jr. and Willson Contreras, Baez is one of the young players who despite key roles on a championship contender the last few years still have big league growth to come. And Maddon thinks that growth is right around the corner.

“I want to believe you’re going to see that this year,” Maddon said. “They’ve had enough major league at-bats now, they should start making some significant improvements that are easy to recognize. The biggest thing normally is pitch selection, I think that’s where it really shows up. When you have talented players like that, that are very strong, quick, all that other stuff, if they’re swinging at strikes and taking balls, they’re going to do really well. And so it’s no secret with Javy. It’s no secret with Addy. Addy’s been more swing mode as opposed to accepting his walks. That’s part of the maturation process with those two guys. Albert I thought did a great job the last month, two months of getting better against righties. I thought Jason looked really good in the cage today. And Willson’s Willson.

“The natural assumption is these guys have played enough major league at-bats that you should see something different this year in a positive way.”'s Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

USA TODAY's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

Could 2018 be the year that the Cubs finally see a top pitching prospect debut with the team? 

Thursday, released its list of the Cubs' 2018 Top 30 Prospects, a group that includes six pitchers in the Top 10. The list ranks right-hander Adbert Alzolay as the Cubs' No 1. prospect, projecting him to debut with the team this season. 

Alzolay, 22, went 7-4 with a 2.99 ERA in 22 starts between Single-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee last season. He also struck out 108 batters in 114 1/3 innings, using a repertoire that includes a fastball that tops out around 98 MPH (according to

Following Alzolay as the Cubs' No. 2 overall prospect is 19-year-old shortstop Aramis Ademan. Ademan hit .267 in just 68 games between Single-A Eugene and Single-A South Bend, though it should be noted that he has soared from No. 11 in's 2017 ranks to his current No. 2 ranking. He is not projected to make his MLB debut until 2020, however.

Following Alzolay and Ademan on the list are five consecutive pitchers ranked 3-7, respectively. Oscar De La Cruz, No. 3 on the list, slides down from his 2017 ranking in which listed him as the Cubs' top overall prospect. De La Cruz, 22, finished 2017 with a 3.34 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) between the Arizona League and Single-A Myrtle Beach.

De La Cruz is projected to make his MLB debut in 2019, while Jose Albertos (No. 4), Alex Lange (No. 5), Brendon Little (No. 6) and Thomas Hatch (No. 7) are projected to make their big league debuts in 2019 or 2020. All are right-handed (with the exception of Little) and starting pitchers.

Hatch (third round, 2016) and Lange (30th overall, 2017) and Little (27th overall, 2017) were all top draft picks by the Cubs in recent seasons.

Having numerous starting pitchers on the cusp of the big leagues represents a significant change of pace for the Cubs. 

Since Theo Epstein took over as team president in Oct. 2011, a plethora of top prospects have debuted and enjoyed success with the Cubs. Majority have been position players, though.

The likes of Albert Almora, Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell all contributed to the Cubs winning the World Series in 2016. Similarly, Ian Happ enjoyed a fair amount of success after making his MLB debut last season, hitting 24 home runs in just 115 games.

Ultimately, Alzolay would be the Cubs' first true top pitching prospect to make it to the big leagues in the Theo Epstein era. While him making it to the big leagues in 2018 is no guarantee, one would think a need for pitching will arise for the Cubs at some point, whether it be due to injury or simply for September roster expansion.

The Cubs have enjoyed tremendous success in recent years in terms of their top prospects succeeding in the MLB. If the trend continues, Alzolay should be a force to reckon with on the North Side for years to come.